Photo: Sundance

I don’t scare easily. As much as I love horror movies, and have since I was young, they don’t usually shake me in any real, lasting way: “It’s only a movie” is always there for me like a security blanket, smothering any genuine panic. So it’s a special kind of awful, a rare treat of sorts, when something comes along that actually gets past my defenses, that does more than make me jolt upright in my seat occasionally or instill with me a vague, temporary unease. That happened last night, in a crowded Park City theater, during the second public screening of Ari Aster’s blood-curdling Hereditary (Grade: A-), most of which I spent in a state of deep distress, palms soaked, breath shallow. This isn’t a scary movie. It’s pure emotional terrorism, gripping you with real horror, the unspeakable kind, and then imbuing the supernatural stuff with those feelings. It didn’t play me like a fiddle. It slammed on my insides like a grand piano.

Like some of the best horror, Hereditary claws at deeper anxieties; it’s a serious, adult psychological study that also happens to double as impeccably crafted haunted-house “entertainment.” Much should not be disclosed about the film’s twisty, diabolical plot, but it involves a family caught in a compounding spiral of grief. Annie Graham (Toni Collette, in an intense, phenomenally complex performance to rival the one Essie Davis gave in The Babadook) is a work-from-home artist who specializes in dioramas of her spaces, emotional and physical. (The bravura opening shot establishes this line of work, panning over from a window to a dollhouse, getting closer and closer to its interior, until suddenly one of the rooms is a real one, with flesh-and-blood actors inside.) Annie has a lot of material to work with of late: Her mother, an unloving and often harmful presence in her daughter’s life, has just succumbed to cancer, and the loss has created a storm cloud over the family home, straining Annie’s relationship with her psychiatrist husband (Gabriel Byrne), withdrawn teenage son (Alex Wolff), and disturbed younger daughter (Broadway’s Milly Shapiro).

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The story unfolds at a deliberate creep, slowly unraveling its insidious design. But the shocks come early and often, beginning with something so upsetting, in its harrowing real-life possibility, that it may challenge viewers’ capacity to keep watching. (I certainly felt a strong urge to bolt or at least look away from the screen—a sign that a horror movie is working like gangbusters.) Hereditary anchors its terrors to unbearable emotion: the dark, terrible resentment and despair that comes bubbling up from inside of Annie. The warped genius of the film’s tactic is how it steeps us in the pain of these characters, investing in the drama of their situation, and then uses the raw emotions—theirs and ours—to enhance the potency of its set pieces. Which are masterful, by the way: Propelled by a dread-infused, disorienting score by avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson, the film does a number on the nerves, perfecting the James Wan approach of prolonged suggestion and peekaboo funhouse horror. But even the jump scares feel psychologically loaded. A single, unexpected sound effect sent my entire audience out of their seats, but it wasn’t just the crack timing; the previous scene, a mere dialogue exchange, had already put us all on edge, priming our nerves for the scare.

Amazingly confident for a debut feature, Hereditary is first-class genre filmmaking. It’s hard for me to imagine seeing a more frightening movie this year—especially after the full-bore climax, which features images that will stay lodged uncomfortably in my mind (and possibly my bad dreams) for who knows how long. Further comparisons to The Babadook seem inevitable, but Hereditary isn’t as thematically cut-and-dried as that acclaimed horror hit; its emotions are somehow uglier, messier, tougher to diagnose. “This is a very personal film,” Aster remarked before the screening (all the dollhouse stuff feels like a parallel to his cathartic creative process), and I think the key to its power is the darkness he’s channeled into its framework, invigorating genre formula with all that bad baggage. If I struggle to recommend the movie without reservation, it’s because I suspect plenty of viewers may have trouble even handling this mixture of tough, bleak family drama and impeccably staged, nightmare-inducing horror. But that’s a challenge plenty of horror buffs will surely accept. They’ll get their chance soon: A24 is releasing the movie on unsuspecting audiences, possibly as soon as March. Just don’t say you weren’t warned.