“Hereditary” is a horror film that features ghosts, a Satanic cult, grisly deaths, flies, possession and seances, children imperiled, nightmare sequences, a doubting adult or two and a dog who seems to be the only one to know pretty much what’s going down.
Nothing new to see here, right?
And the fact that first-time feature director and writer Ari Aster treats all this as if he’s just discovered it, and that these cliches merit a stately two hours and seven minutes of screen time, should be turn-offs. I mean, come on.
But Aster landed superb actors Gabriel Byrne, Ann Dowd, Alex Wolff and especially Toni Collette. Great actors make you believe because they believe. It gets under your skin by messing around with those conventions and cliches.
And damned if “Hereditary,” macabre, meditative and meandering as it is, doesn’t well up in your throat like a breathless scream that can’t get out.
Collette plays Annie, a visual artist in the alien, underpopulated wilderness and wealth of Park City, Utah, the home of the Sundance Film Festival. She, husband Steve (Byrne) and their two kids live in a mountainside chalet that looks like a designer dollhouse.
And that’s sort of what her art looks like. It’s a dollhouse filled with dollhouses, actually meticulously crafted diaoramas ranging in subject from the banal to the bizarre.
As Annie bases these on her world and events in her life, her latest is “Hospice,” part of a show she’s pulling together for a prestigious art dealer. “Hospice?” That’s where her hated mother was until she died. Yeah, the funeral will make a cool “subject,” too for “Small World Artworks.”
“Should I be sadder?” she wonders, and she’s not alone in that family. She should be worried. She’s got a teen son (Wolff) who tolerates her via a serious dedication to marijuana. Her daughter Charlie? That girl ain’t right.
Whatever’s going on or about to in that house, Charlie( Milly Shapiro) is the focus of our suspicions. “On the spectrum,” as we say — she’s 13, disheveled, miserable and morbid, playing with grim toys of her own design, obsessed with death and plainly indulged by a school when she should be in a class all her own.
She obsessively devours chocolate bars (without nuts), clucks her tongue, scribbles weird graffiti on her walls, seems far away even when she’s sitting right next to you and would give anybody not used to her appearance, her slow-wittedness and manner the creeps.
It’s a portrayal so unsettling that you worry for the young actress creating it, fret over how her young life might be scarred by association with a character so homely, socially crippled and mentally off.
Charlie doesn’t so much drive the action as incite it.
And Aster’s film isn’t so much a cerebral (This IS an A24 release) exercise in genre filmmaking as a picture that gets in your head through the performances. The grief support group lady (Ann Dowd) Annie meets who talks her into a seance is a laughably abrupt introduction and re-direction of the film.
But Collette plays that seance with the overwhelming shock that most of us would register upon seeing “proof” of the supernatural.
Peter’s reaction to tragedy is mute shock and denial in a searing scene that is the movie’s first-act jaw-dropper. Byrne’s Steve is stoic, keeping it all together, skeptical and haunted, in his own way, by what he sees in his wife and what he knows about her past.
Collette’s Annie? She comes completely, believably apart, dissolving in paroxysms of grief.
Ordinary horror films give us hope, but Aster’s vision doesn’t, an apt metaphor for the End Times the world and America seem to be heedlessly sprinting toward.
“Hereditary” isn’t original enough to merit “great film” praise. But by bending and extending the tropes of the genre and hiring top drawer talent to buy in, Aster makes us buy in, too, and gives us a pretty disturbing picture to chew on and mull over on the way home.
MPAA Rating: R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity
Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd
Credits: Written and directed by Ari Aster. An A24 release.
Running time: 2:07