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After turning heads with his short films, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons and Munchausen, both of which were twisted takes on family rituals, Ari Aster returns to that theme with devilish invention in his bone-chilling feature debut. The movie opens with an obit for 78-year-old Ellen Taper Leigh, and to say that Grandma doesn’t exactly rest in peace is an epic understatement. But Hereditary takes the core haunting element of a spirit with a malevolent agenda and runs with it in a seemingly endless series of unexpected directions over two breathless hours of escalating terror that never slackens for a minute.
Arguably the most effective domestic horror chiller since The Conjuring and The Babadook, this A24 release should hit discerning genre fans right where they live. Aster’s ability to modernize his obvious reverence for the expert mood modulation, visual command and layered characterizations that defined sophisticated horror of the 1960s and ‘70s catapults the writer-director into the vanguard of contemporary horror auteurs. The film’s superb cast, led by an astonishingly good Toni Collette, represents another strong draw.
Hereditary lifts from an adventurous range of influences that spans from the problem-spawn classic Rosemary’s Baby through the malignant mood piece The Shining to the non-horror family grief drama In the Bedroom, with dollops of Greek tragedy and textbook demonology stirred into the mix. It opens with ace cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (who stands to cop a major career boost with his hypnotic work here) establishing what will be the predominant visual style — unsettlingly slow pans from insidiously strange angles in mostly somber light. At the same time, the near-omnipresent underlay of composer Colin Stetson’s rumbling score (which was not the final mix in the Sundance premiere) lays the ominous foundations for the symphony of churning dread to come.
The film was shot in Utah but is set in an unnamed non-urban area resembling the Pacific Northwest, mostly around the architecturally imposing home of the Graham family, a spacious, cathedral-like wooden sanctuary with stained-glass windows, nestled in thick forest. Directly out front is an elevated treehouse to which restless youngest child Charlie (Milly Shapiro) frequently retreats in the middle of the night.
Within the main house is a whole other world of architectural marvels, minutely detailed miniature homes and rooms in various stages of assembly in the workshop of Charlie’s mother Annie (Collette), a mixed-media artist preparing for an upcoming gallery show. Those models (Steve Newburn did the amazing miniature designs), as well as the treehouse, will take on disturbing significance as the story progresses.
In her eulogy at Ellen’s funeral, Annie declares her love for her mother but openly acknowledges that she was a difficult woman, private and secretive. “It does feel weird,” she confesses to her soft-spoken husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) as they return home. “Should I be sadder?” She checks in on her eldest teenager Peter (Alex Wolff), an easygoing stoner, to see if the funeral upset him and gets an untroubled smile in response. Only Charlie, a brooding 13-year-old with a rat’s nest of hair and a sketchpad full of angry drawings (even her bunnies and chickens look evil) seems disturbed by Grandma’s passing.
While Annie is glancing through boxes of her mother’s belongings, she comes across a note tucked into a book on spiritualism. “Don’t hate me,” reads its cryptic message. “Our sacrifices will pale in the end next to our rewards.” That and a hazy apparition of Ellen set off Annie’s shivers. We learn more about Grandma’s dark side when Annie visits a grief support group, spilling out details of her psychotically depressed father’s suicide by starvation and her schizophrenic older brother hanging himself, leaving a note accusing their mother of “putting people inside him.” Annie reveals that they were estranged for many years, but her mother moved in with them toward the end when she was suffering from dementia.
Meanwhile, Steve gets a call from the cemetery informing him that Ellen’s grave has been desecrated, news he decides to keep from Annie, while creepy Charlie keeps busy with craft projects, little effigies constructed out of what appear to be Grandma’s spectacles and pill bottles. Cute. She calmly pulls out her scissors to snip off the head of a pigeon that slammed into her classroom window, and seems unfazed when she sees Grandma sitting amid flames in a field near the house.
All this — which is pretty much just the setup — might sound like the arch underpinnings of a standard frightfest about a family in the grip of supernatural peril from the pissed-off departed. But Aster and the actors treat it all with persuasive seriousness, albeit with the occasional touch of mischievous gallows humor. It’s evident from the flickers of light dancing around the girl that Grandma has something worrying in mind for Charlie. Annie earlier explained that she kept Peter from her mother while he was a child, but weakened and allowed Ellen to get “her hooks” into her daughter. Just how deep those hooks have been sunk is revealed in a tragedy that does not take the expected route.
That incident rattles the Grahams beyond repair, and while Steve attempts to remain a voice of reason, Annie is so spooked she starts making meticulous miniature recreations of the family’s misfortunes in her workshop, not to mention her nighttime treehouse forays. Peter also is profoundly affected, taking a while to snap out of catatonic shock and then subject to strange fits of asphyxiation and violent possession at school. In one of the movie’s most searing scenes, Annie spews out her bottled-up rage at her son at the dinner table, in a stunning display of wild-eyed hysteria and bitterness from Collette.
As if the situation at home isn’t hair-raising enough, Ann Dowd then enters the picture. She plays Joan, armed with a smile and words of comfort for Annie as she shares the recent loss of her son and adored 7-year-old grandson. Dowd in benevolent mode is almost scarier than some of her recent monster roles. She keeps popping up in Annie’s path, introducing her to some basic seance techniques that Annie then impulsively tries at home. Massive mistake.
Editors Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston keep the pace measured, the transitions smooth and the drama quietly unnerving throughout, supported at every step by Stetson’s music. On the visual side, minimal lighting effects are the closest thing to obvious CG work. Likewise the jump scares and other amped-up horror tropes are held back for the final spiral of events, which will scare the bejesus out of all but the most desensitized audiences.
Decapitated corpses and barbecued bodies stack up, along with underworld emissaries, witchy symbols and mystic words scrawled on walls, and alarming visual statements of intent manifesting spontaneously on the pages of Charlie’s sketchpad. But even as Aster soars into Grand Guignol territory, Hereditary keeps a tight hold on its story sense.
What makes the movie so satisfying is that while it turns steadily into a batshit-crazy collision of the supernatural and the classically mythological, the family dynamic remains firmly in play.
Byrne has the most subdued role, but he deftly conveys the mounting anxiety of a man of reason struggling to manage his wife’s rocketing hysteria. Wolff handles the transition from mellow youth into cursed target with aching fragility, Peter’s disturbing issues with his mother emerging in prickly moments along the way. And Shapiro, one of the original stars of Matilda on Broadway, plays an unsettling character with such a nightmarish trajectory that one hopes her parents will persuade her to wait a few years before watching.
The magnificent Dowd continues to add to her formidable gallery of uniquely sinister figures. (Note to self: If you see her, run.) But the riveting center is Collette. The Australian actor’s emotionally frayed work in one of the most iconic horror movies of the past 20 years, The Sixth Sense, was largely overlooked in favor of Haley Joel Osment seeing dead people. Her performance here is almost operatic in its whiplash turns and fierce thunder crashes of fear and madness.
Hereditary doubtless will never reach the stratospheric commercial heights of the M. Night Shyamalan film, but it’s an immaculately crafted, black-hearted horror-in-the-home fantasia that, like its director, is destined to make a mark.
Production companies: PalmStar Media, Pulse Films
Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Mallory Bechtel
Director-screenwriter: Ari Aster
Producers: Kevin Frakes, Lars Knudsen, Buddy Patrick
Executive producers: Ryan Kreston, Jonathan Gardner
Director of photography: Pawel Pogorzelski
Production designer: Grace Yun
Costume designer: Olga Mill
Music: Colin Stetson
Editors: Jennifer Lame, Lucian Johnston
Miniature & prosthetic designer: Steve Newburn
Visual effects supervisor: Eran Dinur
Casting: Jessica Kelly
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
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