Family is a curse in the harrowing, deeply frightening Hereditary

Photo: A24
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Of all the blood-curdling images conjured up by Hereditary, the most traumatically terrifying new horror movie in ages, one sticks out as particularly definitive: Toni Collette, face twisted into a grotesque grimace of fear, staring off screen at a ghastly something we’ll soon have the bad luck of laying eyes on too. Her recurring expression of fright and pain is more than just a perfect mirror, reflecting back the audience’s own mounting distress. It also captures, in shuddery microcosm, the tactics of this relentless, ingenious shocker, the way it builds its haunted house on a foundation of raw and ugly emotion. The real horror—a tempest of unspoken, unspeakable feeling—lurks behind the safer, faker kind, enhancing every macabre funhouse moment.

In its seriousness and hair-raising craftsmanship, Hereditary belongs to a proud genre lineage, a legacy that stretches back to the towering touchstones of American horror, unholy prestige-zeitgeist classics like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. Remarkably, it’s a first feature, the auspicious debut of writer-director Ari Aster, whose acclaimed, disturbing short films were all leading, like a tunnel into the underworld, to this bleak vision. You know you’re at the mercy of a gifted filmmaker from the ominous first shot: the camera pivoting from a window and across a workshop, past a collection of carefully constructed dollhouses, creeping closer and closer to the interior of one of them, until—through some imperceptible magic trick—the miniature room has become life-size, with flesh-and-blood actors inside of it.

This bravura, perspective-bending opening scene teases an insidious blueprint: sinister forces operating just beyond the line of sight, conspiring in secret. It also establishes the livelihood of Collette’s Annie Graham, an artist who specializes in dioramas of her spaces, emotional and physical. Annie has a lot of material to work with of late. Her mother, a private, distant person and often a chilly presence in her daughter’s life, has just succumbed to cancer, and the death has sent a storm cloud over the family home, straining Annie’s relationships. Husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) perennially and often unhelpfully keeps the peace. Teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) withdraws. And disturbed, sullen 13-year-old Charlie (Broadway star Milly Shapiro), who may possess some unspecified developmental disorder, quietly frets. She is, in her own way, an artist, too, given her compulsive habit of building creepy homemade figurines, sometimes augmented with real animal parts. She also appears to possess a link to the spirit world, drawn as she is to spectral figures in the distance.

You could say that misfortune runs in the Graham family. In fact, it seems to get passed from generation to generation like a curse. Early into the film, Annie attends a support group for the bereaved, and an awful personal history comes pouring out of her, through a monologue that relays the shattering losses she’s endured since childhood. And that’s before Aster rocks her and her family with fresh, inconceivable tragedy: a freak accident so upsetting, in its real-life possibility and aftermath, that it defiantly breaches the standard contract of multiplex-ready genre “entertainment”; anyone going in expecting some easily digested Friday-night thrills may leave shaken, even incensed. What happens within the boxy contours of the Graham home, as dinners transform into venomous airings of grievances and blame volleys across rooms like shots fired, has as much in common with the wrenching, heartbroken truth-telling of, say, In The Bedroom as any bump-in-the-dark potboiler.

But that’s part of the warped genius of Hereditary: It’s a supremely effective gauntlet of supernatural horror that’s also, at blackened heart, a grueling domestic drama about how trauma, resentment, and guilt can seep into the roots of a family tree, rotting it from the inside out. So much of the film’s spooky power belongs to Collette. She’s been down this darkened street before, having played a mother mourning her own mother while raising a child who sees dead people. But she digs much deeper in Hereditary, not just leaning into the full, volcanic agony of Annie’s grief—a force as possessive, in a manner of speaking, as any invading spirit—but also complicating it with conflicting notes of bitter fury, wavering affection, and even dark humor. It’s a tour-de-force performance, at once explosive and heartbreaking, and as extreme thoughts and hard truths begin bubbling from the depths of Annie’s mind, Collette turns her heightened, volatile emotions into an open threat: the monster of unprocessed baggage. (Her fervor is nearly matched, it must be said, by the credible bone-deep fright conveyed by Wolff, stuck in a much more harrowing misadventure than the one he weathered in Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle.)

As a set-piece machine, Hereditary doesn’t shatter the mold. Its tropes are familiar: apparitions emerging gradually from the shadows or perching in the corner of the frame; bodies unnaturally contorted; a creepy kid (this one granted an unnerving verbal tic, a guttural cluck deployed to break the silence at opportune moments). And Aster hews pretty closely to what might cynically be described as the A24 (haunted) house style, complete with ominously gliding camerawork and a groaning, atonal score by avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson. But he also conducts his scares with the cruel precision of a veteran maestro of dread. His true innovation is anchoring each of them to unbearable torment, exploiting the relationship between sorrow and fear; at times, Hereditary is brilliantly sophisticated in its emotional terrorism. Aster will seem to leave the grisliest image to the imagination, sparing us the full gut punch, only to spring it on us at a moment of pure devastation. (Let’s just say he knows when to go in for the close-up.) And he’ll use a disarming conversation, like the one between Annie and a fellow bereaved soul (Ann Dowd) who seems just a little left of center, to prime us for a gangbusters jolt. Even the jump scares are psychologically loaded.

Moving, for a good while, at a deliberate creep, Hereditary gradually ratchets up the intensity, until a full-bore climax that’s relentless in its crucible of terrors. It’s not always the most elegant piece of storytelling—the exposition comes in crashing waves by the end. But as with Annie’s dollhouse reenactments, we know we’re looking at a work of cathartic expression. And there’s a certain terrible beauty to how the plot finally comes together, the pieces falling diabolically into place. Tragedy, especially the truly senseless kind, tends to leave people searching desperately for meaning, grand and spiritual or otherwise, in what fate seems to have put them through. By the shocking ending, the Graham family has stumbled into a kind of meaning, and even a strange sort of purpose, in the nightmare they’ve endured. For viewers, finding such transcendence in Hereditary’s hellish design will be a matter of stomach, nerves, and twisted sensibility.