Courtesy of A24
Not very often does a horror film leave me this unsettled.
Helmed by first-time Director Ari Aster, “Hereditary” is a tightly constructed thrill fest, that is easily the scariest movie you'll likely see all year. And that's not because of cheap musical cues, or jump scares, it's because Aster never loosens his grip, and manages to paralyzes his audience with genuine fear. Oh, and Toni Collette needs to be in the awards conversation for her terrifying performance.
Set in the aftermath of her mothers death, Annie (Collette) is still reeling from that loss, or more accurately, figuring out if she needs to be more upset. “Should I be more sad?” she asks her husband (Gabriel Byrne). And that basically sums up her relationship with mom in a heartbeat. But the death has left a cloud over the family dynamic. Straining any relationship in its path.
For the most part, routine is part of the family's daily lives, but Annie usually has to keep a sharp eye on 13 year old Charlie (played by newcomer Milly Shapiro) whose tendencies to wander off into the woods barefoot or accidentally eat something with nuts are high. Then you have Peter (Alex Wolff) and we can immediately get the vibe something between him and Annie are...off.
It's clear the Graham family has some skeletons in their closets.
In these early scenes, Aster is smart to keep the audience in the dark on all the familial issues. We are finding out things as the characters on screen are, and more so as the movie starts to unravel the twisted secrets lurking beneath. Granted, it's a bit long getting into the center of this story, but watching Collette work the same magic she brought to “The Sixth Sense” is more than enough glue to bind the two parts together. One scene in particular conjures up just how tactical Aster is with his script, using raw emotions as Collette lays eyes on something, that, let's just say, is too good to spoil in print. That's the real horror: her recurring expression of fright, which sums up exactly what I was feeling in those moments too.
You could say the Graham lineage is not something you'll want to part of, as misfortune tends to run in the family. Or it seems to get passed on from generations like a revolving curse. Early into the film, Annie talks herself into attending a support group where she meets a kind and inviting woman named Joan (Ann Dowd from “The Handmaids Tale”) and starts pouring our her awful personal history. Aster also continues to rock the Graham boat with insurmountable tragedy that's so devastating, I'm not sure how audiences will react. One thing is for certain, it won't make you feel warm and fuzzy.
What happens next in this crafty haunted house thrill ride is a transformative experience, that volleys your heart-rate back and forth like a game of tennis. It's part of the potboiler tension that marks Aster's rise as a promising filmmaker, borrowing elements from the likes of “The Exorcist” as inspiration. This is a supremely effective gauntlet that's spooky power belongs to Collette. All at once explosive and heartbreaking, she manages to dig deep into her role, finding the depths inside Annie's mind and delivering bone curdling screams that knock the socks right off your feet.
As a whole, “Hereditary” doesn't shatter the glass ceiling of horror troupes. Most of this will feel familiar: apparitions emerging from the walls, bodies contorting in ways not meant to be seen by the human eye, a creepy kid with a nervous tick that pops up at opportune moments of silence, and an aesthetic that is probably best described as the “A24” model. Complete with swopping motions of the camera, and a prickly musical score that balances sorrow and dread.
This all cooks to a climax that's sadistic in the most grueling way imaginable. You'll sit in your chair clinging your hands to the armrest, in partial paralysis not believing what's transpiring. There's a certain beauty to the way Aster executes his mission, and the motifs of tragedy - that flow in and out of the picture - seem to dig this horror reality into much deeper roots.
You can believe the hype, “Hereditary” is absolutely nuts.