'Hereditary': Oh mama
“Hereditary” opens with an obituary. The way the score swells ominously with this text on the screen, then swiftly guillotines to silence, you’ll expect it to end with a few more.
But writer-director Ari Aster isn’t just interested in cranking out a slasher feature stuffed with corn-syrupy kills. “Hereditary,” his feature debut, exists somewhere between “The Witch” and “A Quiet Place,” in a neo-horror realm where filmmakers use considerable visual skill and style to tease out long, nearly unbearable moments of breathless, disarming silence. “Hereditary” plays your nerves like a squeaky violin with cat-gut strings still inside the living cat. Except, you know, quieter.
Aster’s anchor is a screenplay unafraid to stretch out and establish the complicated dynamics of the family within the story’s dramatic focus. His fully committed trouper is Toni Collette, as the mother whose already tenuous grip on sanity gradually loosens beneath a controlled exterior. Unlike more mundane horror films, her work is understated and coursing with subtext, playing a woman haunted foremost by an unfathomably tragic past, and then maybe by something else entirely.
Collette is a force as Annie, an artist who painstakingly crafts miniature models of real-life scenes for gallery showings. Evident by their subject matter, her work is deeply personal and cathartic - one of the dioramas depicts her mother laying in a hospice bed. (Others are more disturbing, of course.) And yet, she tends to build them with a strange dispassion, as if she’s another person entirely, viewing her own life as objectively as possible. Something, as they say, ain’t quite right here.
We’re not sure what her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) really thinks about this; he’s blandly supportive, and underwritten. They have two teenage children. Peter (Alex Wolff) is an average high-schooler who smokes pot, borrows the car so he can go to parties, and is distracted by the hindquarters of the girl seated in front of him in class. His younger sister is Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who’s prone to odd behavior - compulsively clucking her tongue, sleeping overnight in her chilly treehouse, or cutting the head off a dead pigeon and keeping it, for reasons unknown. A passing reference to Charlie’s past illness is mentioned. She seems like a young body with an old soul, and, having an intuition honed by many horror movies, I’d wager that soul is, oh, a few millennia old, give or take a century or two.
That’s not a spoiler. Aster isn’t in the spoonfeeding business, and “Hereditary” is rife with the kind of suggestiveness rendering it deliciously atmospheric, intense and suspenseful. Perhaps there’s a puzzle to be assembled among all his hints and brief glimpses, if you’re not too busy hovering a quarter-inch above your seat during the many acutely creepy bits.
The opening obit is for Annie’s mom. Charlie was “Grandma’s favorite.” (Yes, hmm.) Things were weird between Annie and her mother, who lived with them, but was apparently a tough nut to crack: “She had private rituals, private friends and private anxieties,” Annie says during an awkward eulogy. At home, Annie wanders into her mother’s now-empty bedroom, and there’s a large triangle carved into the floor; it doesn’t seem like a design aesthetic, unless you’re populating the apartment next door in “Rosemary’s Baby.”
Although “Hereditary” delivers freaky terror effectively, none of the scares would be nearly as potent if Aster hadn’t so diligently cultivated a domestic drama first. Annie and her family’s struggles are rooted in universal complications of love and grief. But the stylized world Aster creates smells ever so slightly… off. Just off. Far enough off, all we can do is wait for it to go further off, to jump the rails, to boil over, to maybe go Satanically nuclear.
Aster crams in a lot of familiar horror-movie tropes, including grave desecration, sleepwalking, seances, ghosts, strange lights, swarming insects and a couple instances of lingering, nauseating gore. (Does it feature a character walking… very… slowly… through… a… house… and… never… bothering… to… flick… on… a… lightswitch? Indeed it does.) Yet the movie makes many unexpected narrative and visual turns. I’m not certain Aster coherently ties everything together conceptually at the end, which is a head-scratcher at the same time it’s freaky as hell - which may be merely the point. That’s what sets it apart from, say, the extraordinary “Get Out,” but “Hereditary” is ambitious in its manipulation, trafficking heavily in the type of irrational fearmongering that’ll definitely prompt you to flick on a damn lightswitch or three when you get home.
MPAA rating: R for horror violence, disturbing images, drug use and brief graphic nudity
Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro
Director: Ari Aster
Run time: 127 minutes