The best horror movies are showcases for actors. Screaming and losing a spleen on cue is one thing, but the characters who really stick with us are the ones who can walk a line between victim and perpetrator, showing the possession of evil on a troubled soul made complete.
Toni Collette’s work as a mother who’s jolted between grief, anxiety and rage in the new A24 horror offering Hereditary is one for the ages, belonging in the same breath as Linda Blair in The Exorcist and Sissy Spacek in Carrie. Collette plays Annie Graham, a dollhouse artist who crafts autobiographical, scale-model miniatures of her sprawling, creaky rural Utah home, and whose unhealthy response to an onslaught of family tragedy morphs into something deeper and destructive with a little supernatural nudge. It’s a meaty part, and Collette plays it BIG, with blitzkrieg energy that shoots out in fits and bursts, sometimes literally catching herself with hands to her mouth after blurting out horrifying truths. Meanwhile, the film’s chilly, uncompromising narrative sends her down an intractable path toward doom. As a character, her control of the situation is limited, but as a performer she couldn’t be more commanding. When Toni says “scream,” we ask, “how loud?”
Oh yeah, and the movie’s not half-bad, either. It’s got a dash of haunted-house tropes from The Amityville Horror and others, and more than a wink of family-dynamic creepshows like The Omen and Poltergeist, plus the usual beheaded dolls and trickster demons. But writer-director Ari Aster mixes all of these somewhat tired influences into a sinister cocktail of a feature debut. On the horror scale it favors the creepy over the gory, but the squeamish should know it’s not without its blood. Some of Aster’s most powerful moments come not from the occult spooks, but from the aftermath of more down-to-earth tragedy: like how, after one character is party to something truly terrible, they can’t think of anything else to do but go home and lie down silently in bed.
Hereditary flings its surprises into the frame pretty much from the first act, so we don’t want to talk about them too much. But it’s worth noting that the film begins with a family death, and unsurprisingly, this corpse won’t be the last in the lineage. The first to dearly depart is Annie’s mother, who’d been a largely antagonistic presence in the Graham family’s life even before the dementia set in: Every kinfolk who came in contact with her seemed to have contracted some mental illness, and Emily’s unease around her led to a decision to keep her away from her son Peter (Alex Wolff). But Grandma did leave her mark on Emily’s stone-faced, death-obsessed daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, a proud graduate of the Creepy Horror-Movie Child School of Acting), who stomps around in baggy sweaters and starts cutting off pidgeon heads for her own purposes. The uneasy relationships between Emily and her children will fuel the hardships and horrors to come, while some strange, leather-bound books in the attic indicate that Grandma may have been in communiqué with the underworld.
The threats in this movie do not chase or jump their victims. They entrap, through careful, methodical plotting: a sequence of cruel pacts that are already in motion once the film starts and only tighten around Annie the more she struggles to make sense of them. Her feckless husband, played by Gabriel Byrne, quickly becomes an outsider in his own home, while a mysterious new friend should be giving her pause if for no other reason than that she’s played by Ann Dowd. The family might as well be in one of Annie’s dollhouses, like the scale model of their home featured in the brilliant opening sequence: A slow tracking shot that warps our perception of reality before a single line of dialogue is uttered.
As the objects of our sympathies flicker from one family member who does horrible things to another, Aster ramps up the tension, and then ramps it up some more, and then just keeps cranking the dial like it’s a Spinal Tap amp. The film plays with lighting and extended shots, shrouding the bad things in darkness and having them hang there in long, pregnant pauses, until we’ve nearly burrowed into our seats from dread. It might all seem like a bunch of surface-level frights, but something in this tale cut deep: The fear that you may never be able to escape your own lineage, that your family will always have a plan for you.