It’s probably a good indicator that you aren’t in for a happy two hours when the film you’re watching opens with a newspaper obituary. In “Hereditary” it turns out the obit is for 78-year-old Ellen Taper Leigh. It’s the launching point for this stunning and genuinely creepy filmmaking debut.
Writer-director Ari Aster’s fiendishly disturbing film gets under your skin through slow-boiling horror beats while patiently maneuvering its characters through scenes/stages of grief, mental and emotional instability, and finally full-blown terror. It’s one part a heart-wrenching family story, but as Aster begins carefully peeling away the surface layers of his tale, a dark and deeply unsettling heart is revealed.
Toni Collette is extraordinary in the film’s lead role. She plays Annie, an artist who specializes in miniatures many of which are based on her own life experiences. She lives in the mountains with her soft-spoken husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their 16-year-son Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). She happens to be the daughter of Ellen Taper Leigh. You remember, the woman from the above mentioned obituary?
As Annie eulogizes her mother at the funeral service it becomes clear their relationship was strained. We also learn Annie’s childhood was tough. Her father battled psychotic depression, her mom had dementia and her brother was a schizophrenic. All of it feeds into the estranged Annie’s frame of mind, but it also feeds into the wickedly uncomfortable horror element that simmers at the core of Aster’s film.
Plot-wise being intentionally vague is pretty essential. The fewer details you have going in the better the effect. It starts a bit slow as its pieces are put into place, but once the psychological terror begins to uncoil the movie methodically grows more and more discomforting. Aster’s examination of grief and mental illness gets darker and more queasy with every scene.
“Hereditary” is a genuinely terrifying movie, not in the gory gruesome or lazy jump-scare sense. Instead it bores deep down under your skin much in the way Robert Eggers did with his exceptional 2016 film “The Witch”. With fine performances, a strong directorial debut, and soaked in the strategically menacing score by Colin Stetson, “Hereditary” slowly pulls you in before giving your nerves and your senses a good working over. That’s the kind of ‘horror’ that lands with me.
VERDICT – 4 STARS