There’s no other way to say it: Ari Aster’s directorial debut is terrifying. From the low-key, ominous screech of violins on the soundtrack to a strange young girl who cuts the heads off birds, Hereditary is bold with the use familiar scare tactics. Even when the film teeters close to silliness, it yanks the audience back into the terror with something close to mystical ability. Pitched just short of constant, haranguing hysteria, it left much of the audience in a state close to nervous exhaustion by the conclusion.
The setting is a large, unnervingly symmetrical log cabin and its adjoining studio workshop, where Annie (Toni Collette), a miniatures artist who painstakingly creates dollhouses, works and lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne). Their two children are worlds apart from one another: a weed-smoking, Instagram-scrolling teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and an oddly-featured, squat blond girl, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who has a strange, taciturn disposition. After the death of their elderly grandmother, tiny, bizarre incidences begin to take place. The forbidding old matriarch apparently dabbled in the occult, and has engineered something sinister from beyond the veil. Words are scrawled on the wall; apparitions materialize; accidents happen. These events build from the mildly disturbing to the breathtakingly brutal, and the first act of the film dissolves from a family bereavement to a traumatic tour-de-force. As the film transitions from slow-burn family drama into supernatural thriller, elaborate sequences show us the art of Victorian-style seances and spiritualism.
This character-driven approach to the family dynamic makes for an unusually high-stakes horror movie, particularly when the performances are so great. Toni Collette is a mass of mania and pain, her face sometimes contorting into an unrecognizable mask of rage; Alex Wolff transitions from an ordinary teen to a perpetually nervous wreck of a human; Milly Shapiro stares vacantly, with the unsettling tic of clicking her tongue. Recrimination, skepticism, and resentment color their lives together, and the empty spaces of the family home grow increasingly isolated and malignant. The glow of a space heater is spectral and hellish; the curve of a smile is forbidding.
And for as much as the film wallows in the depths of grief and trauma, it is also unabashed about being a genre exercise. By the time you’ve reached the conclusion, you’re not exactly contemplating the painful nature of family life so much as trying to unclench your rigid body from the seat. If Hereditary plays with multi-layered ideas, mostly it eschews the allegorical for the chills and spills of the ghost story. It hardly matters: as far as pure, unadulterated horror movies go, it may be one of the most successful ones I’ve ever seen.