By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff
Written and directed by Ari Aster
HEREDITARY opens with an obituary—for just one person, though it might as well be for the whole family she leaves behind. The film itself announces the birth of a scarily assured new talent in the horror field, writer/director Ari Aster, who in his first feature demonstrates a remarkable grasp of both craft and character, and how to meld them into a gripping and terrifying viewing experience.
The movie opens with a shivery transition from a bedroom in a small model house to the space’s real-life counterpart—though Aster rarely gets this visually showy again. Instead, he employs simple yet devastatingly effective technique; he knows the power of a single sound effect dropped in at just the right moment, of snap transitions between night and day and of spooky apparitions at the back of the frame that don’t require obvious musical stingers. And these still wouldn’t work so well if we weren’t caught up in the family drama at the center of HEREDITARY, in which already troubled parents and children are hit by both real-world tragedy and supernatural infestation.
At the center of it all is Toni Collette in a bravura performance as Annie Graham, who has just lost her mother Ellen. The eulogy she gives at Ellen’s funeral, in which she describes her mom as “secretive” and “private,” only hints at the fraught past relationship between the two, the details of which are carefully unfolded over the course of the movie. In the here and now, Annie, who creates detailed miniatures for a living (and for self-therapy), shares an expansive house in the woods (filmed in Utah) with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenaged son Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). With its wood-paneled design, their home tellingly resembles a vacation lodge—a place people only visit temporarily, rather than actually live in. My favorite part of Grace Yun’s impeccable production design is the house’s stained-glass windows, containing arrow shapes that point up and down—to heaven and hell?
For Annie, Ellen may be gone, but she is not forgotten, and Annie’s attempts to deal with both her grief and the terrible memories she’s been left with are the initial focal point of HEREDITARY. Meanwhile, Charlie, who seems disconnected from her family and the world in general, continues her routine of drawing odd and scary pictures in her journal, and commits a strange, shocking act at school. The male Grahams appear to be a little more centered and stable, but that will be severely put to the test as echoes of the past continue to intrude upon the present, and both literal and figurative ghosts come out to play.
The details of what goes on in HEREDITARY should not be spilled here; if you haven’t seen it already, avoid the trailer (even the one embedded below) before experiencing the movie’s chilling and gasp-inducing secrets for yourself. What can be said, unequivocally, is that Aster has made a horror film that works on multiple levels, and that delivers the frightening goods even as it succeeds in plumbing depths of emotion that are rare in movies of any type these days. A good deal of HEREDITARY feels like the creep-under-your-skin slow-burn horror that distributor A24 has specialized in (IT FOLLOWS, THE WITCH), and many of its most harrowing scenes involve simple person-on-person conflict, yet Aster punctuates the film with jolting, visceral shocks that keep you on edge throughout. Inevitable tonal comparisons have been made to ROSEMARY’S BABY, but HEREDITARY’s closest kin is the more recent THE BABADOOK; both are about parents with messy, conflicted feelings toward their children (an inversion of most horror films about families, in which parental protection of their offspring is the driving motivation).
The ferocity of Collette’s galvanizing central turn as the increasingly distraught Annie is perfectly complemented by the quiet oddness and focus of Charlie, as played by Shapiro in her impressive film debut (her stage career includes a special Tony Award for MATILDA: THE MUSICAL). Byrne and Wolff as Steve and Peter, the latter of whom eventually undergoes some of the most serious trauma, are equally fine, and Ann Dowd (from THE HANDMAID’S TALE and COMPLIANCE) adds intriguing notes as a woman who sends HEREDITARY spiraling into paranormal territory in its second half. The endgame sees Aster incorporating some traditional horror tropes, and it’s a testament to his skill that we’re so caught up with the people they envelop, it feels like we’re seeing them for the first time.