‘Hereditary’ a slow build toward horror shocks not easily forgotten

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Toni Collette stars in “Hereditary.” | A24

When I think of the best performances in the horror genre in this century to date, I think of Nicole Kidman in “The Others,” Laura Linney in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out” —

And now Toni Collette in “Hereditary.”

In fact, we can delete “horror genre” from the equation. Like the aforementioned performances, Collette’s work in “Hereditary” is great acting, period.

Nearly 20 years after Collette received a best supporting actress nomination for playing a mother who is stunned when she finally realizes her little boy really does see dead people, she deserves best actress consideration for playing another mother trapped in another inexplicable, spine-tingling, seriously effed-up situation.

At one point, quite deep in the story, Collette’s Annie Graham is in hysterics as she desperately tries to get her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) to believe one of their children is imminent danger, and she knows her argument makes her sound insane, and yet she keeps going and going and going, because she feels responsible for the fate of her child, and she is desperate for her husband’s help, and who gives a good bleep if he thinks she’s crazy if it means he’ll just do this one thing that could save their child.

Collette reaches for the rafters in the scene and were it not for the groundwork she has already laid down and the empathy she has created for her character, were it not for the sheer strength of the performance up to that moment — it might have been too much. It might have come across as over the top.

Instead, it pierces us to the core.

“Hereditary” is one of those rare and treasured horror films that does not rely on “Gotcha!” music stings, or rhythmic knocks on the door in the dead of night, or the cat jumping into frame during a tense moment. The shock moments here (including one that might send one or two viewers running for the exit) are truly stunning, and grotesque, and bizarre — and they will stay with you long after you’ve gone home for the night.

For much of the first hour, writer-director Ari Aster uses a slow build to craft this sinister story, effectively building the foundation for the madhouse we’ll eventually occupy.

Annie is a renowned artist who specializes in meticulously crafted miniature tableaus — wondrous and sometimes disturbing doll houses, if you will — based on the people and the rooms and the events in her own life. (Hmmm, could this be a metaphor for Annie’s desire to control everything around her and perhaps to even play an omniscient role? Hmmmmmm.)

“Hereditary” begins with a funeral, the memorial service for Annie’s mother, a cold and distant and strange woman who never bonded with Annie but had a special connection with Annie’s daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro doing staggeringly fine work).

–Charlie is a strange child. Very strange. She is constantly scribbling dark sketches in her notebook, she’s unable to connect with others on even a basic social level, and she has morbid interests that extend to carrying around the head of a recently deceased bird.

She even prefers to sleep in the family treehouse, as if she’s a figurine in one of her mother’s miniaturist creations.

After a second death impacts the Graham family, Annie bonds with Joan (the amazing Ann Dowd), a warm and sympathetic mother figure she had met at a grief counseling session. Joan (in deep mourning of her own for a son and grandson killed in an accident) introduces Annie to a portal to the next world, a way for Annie to perhaps connect with the deceased.

Soon, Annie is a believer, much to the consternation of her grounded, passive husband and much to the horror of their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), who is dealing with all sorts of freaky baggage on his own. (Let’s just say Peter’s worst nightmares are almost certainly way more disturbing than your worst nightmares.)

The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is a beautifully frightening blend of the realistic (most of the scenes that take place outside of the home) and the surreal (just about everything that occurs within the confines of the Graham home.) The sets are exquisite, somehow giving off a creepy vibe even when it seems as if we’re just looking at furniture and light fixtures and a dining room table. (Something about this house just doesn’t feel right.)

Even though Annie’s mother is almost never seen onscreen, she is a constant presence in the film. Annie is nearly obsessed with establishing she’s nothing like her mother — even as she confesses certain actions that make us realize she may have inherited much of her mother’s darkness. When Annie becomes convinced her mother is trying to reach out from beyond the grave to destroy her family, she barely pauses to consider how mad that sounds.

She’s a mother. She springs into action.

And where Annie goes, and what she does, and what happens to that family, is the stuff of one great horror story.


A24 presents a film written and directed by Ari Aster. Rated R (for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity). Running time: 123 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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