Hereditary isn’t just a scary movie. It’s much, much, much worse than that.
The new instant horror classic (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday) follows along the lines of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist in crafting a visceral experience so deeply unsettling that you don’t feel right afterward. Dirty, even. So unclean that a church visit wouldn’t be out of the question.
The cursed-family drama and occult craziness that writer/director Ari Aster conjures in his impressive feature debut stick around like an unshakable nightmare — fitting, since that’s what he unleashes on the Graham clan — and turn Toni Collette loose for a raw and primal performance unlike anything in her acclaimed career.
Hereditary begins with tragedy and doesn’t let up from there. The family’s matriarch has died, though her presence is felt as survivors make arrangements and get things in order. Her estranged daughter, Annie (Collette), an artist who painstakingly creates miniature dioramas for gallery shows, is trying to come to grips with her complicated feelings: She tells her psychiatrist husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), she’s heading to the movies but instead secretly gets up her nerve to attend a grief-support group.
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Annie’s teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), mainly lives for girls and marijuana, while his younger sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), is a quiet outcast with a penchant for arts and crafts involving dead animal parts. Charlie had a closer relationship to her grandma than others in her family, and the strangeness surrounding the Grahams begins when the youngster starts having visions of the old lady.
Among the many relatable fears Aster really leans into, one is not being able to trust your loved ones. The Grahams begin the movie in an odd place and a series of bad fortunes make things much worse before Hereditary shifts to something way weirder as the deep, dark secrets are revealed. Things get very supernatural when Annie meets Joan (Ann Dowd), who introduces her to séances, thinking it might help Annie’s emotional issues. (It doesn’t.)
Although the cast is superb on the whole, Shapiro and Collette are key to the audience’s emotional investment. Shapiro gives Charlie a haunting quality along with a sense of troubled innocence. And if the Oscars are down with scary movies now (thanks, Get Out), they better pay attention to Collette, who runs the absolute gauntlet of heartbreak, contempt and terror as a mother losing control of everything around her.
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From production design (Annie’s dollhouses act as grand metaphor) to Colin Stetson’s relentlessly dark score with strings, drones and horns, Aster’s flick is an artistic achievement that is honestly a hard watch at times, even for horror fans.
There is violent imagery that will shake parents to their core, and the director doesn’t let up on the gas during a disturbing and insane final 20 minutes. Aster takes inspiration from The Shining and Don’t Look Now but is part of a new generation of filmmakers such as Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Robert Eggers (The Witch) who are evolving the genre.
Hereditary is the next in a long history of horror films that dares you to witness it. And it’s totally worth the long shower you’re going to need afterward.