Like the artsier, more audience-challenging cousin of the Blumhouse fright factory, the independent distributor A24 has been breathing new life into the once-wheezy horror genre with movies like The Witch, Under the Skin, and It Comes at Night. Now, with their latest unholy offering, Hereditary, they’ve delivered their scariest movie yet.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Ari Aster, Hereditary doesn’t reinvent horror cinema so much as polish the cobwebs off of its classics, strip them for parts, and refashion them into something that feels terrifyingly fresh and new. Hawk-eyed genre hounds won’t have to squint very hard to spot nods to films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Shining. But mostly they’ll be too busy gripping their armrests to care.
The main reason that film works as well as it does is the raw, almost feral presence of Toni Collette. In what could be considered a companion piece to her performance in The Sixth Sense (not to mention the best showcase the actress has had in a while), Collette plays Annie Graham — a wife, mother of two kids, and artist who builds miniature dioramas of houses that are just odd and detailed enough to be kind of creepy.
At the beginning of the film, Annie’s mother has just passed away. And shortly afterward, Annie’s odd-duck daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) starts to act even weirder than she normally does — which is pretty weird. There’s a clucking noise that Charlie makes with her mouth that becomes increasingly disturbing. Meanwhile, Annie’s older son, Peter (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s Alex Wolff), has panic attacks when he’s not trying to numb his feelings with weed. And then there’s Gabriel Byrne as Steve, the stoic husband and father trying to hold everything together by ignoring the domestic nightmare unspooling around him. But it’s Collette who we — and the camera — keep coming back to. She’s amazing, grounding what most people might dismiss as just a “scary movie” with real dramatic power and force. She makes us feel in our marrow what it’s like to be a mother losing control of her family and maybe her mind.
Ever since Annie’s mother died, the Grahams have been cursed. But Aster parcels out exactly what that means at his own deliberate pace. Hereditary starts off a bit slowly (it’s heavy on melancholy emotions and ominous atmospherics), but once it gets going, it doesn’t let up until the end credits. With a movie like this that’s full of unsettling WTF twists (did I mention that The Handmaid’s Tale’s Ann Dowd pops up?), it’s definitely best not to know too much going in. So I won’t spill the beans on all of the freaky stuff in store. But if you’re the kind of horror nerd whose cage gets especially rattled by séances, shock scares, and the supernatural, you’re in for a hell of a time. I can’t wait to see what Aster, Collette, and A24 do next. A-