Cast: Toni Colette, Gabrielle Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
Director: Ari Aster
Roughly 30 minutes into Hereditary, the new horror film starring Toni Colette, something so shocking, so unexpected happens, it evoked a collective gasp from the audience. It’s a moment so terrible, I have gooseflesh just thinking about it. Yet, frankly, the long stretch of silence that follows this incident – nearly four minutes of unsettling quiet – is as eerie as anything else in the film.
Written and directed by Ari Aster, Hereditary has been billed, alongside The Exorcist and The Shining, as one of the best horror films ever. Only time will tell if it has the enduring appeal of those classics, but it’s true this is not your typical scary movie. One of the reasons this film has a distinct edge over other titles in the genre is the extraordinary performance of its leading lady.
Colette plays Annie Graham, wife, mother of two, and artist, who works from her studio at home building miniature models of houses. When the film opens, Annie’s elderly mother has just passed away. They shared a difficult relationship, we learn. In the days following her death, as the family deals with their complicated feelings of grief, Annie begins to notice that her socially awkward daughter Charlie is acting stranger than usual.
That’s about all you really need to know as far as plot goes. But I will tell you this: characters, secrets and relationships start to unravel in the most unexpected ways. The film’s first half is especially effective, as the makers dial up the dread with masterful camerawork and sound design. Take the terrific opening sequence, in which the camera zooms so artfully in and out of rooms that you can’t tell if you’re peering into Annie’s home or one of her dollhouses.
This blurring between reality and illusion – a popular trope in this genre – is employed to good effect on more than one occasion in the film. The creep meter is further cranked up by a macabre score that hangs over the film like a pall of gloom. This is classic horror where the emphasis is on atmospherics and mood-building over jump scares and torture porn.
Toni Colette’s intense, go-for-broke performance as Annie, a desperate, troubled woman, wracked by guilt and pain, is what powers the film. It’s a performance that is as much internal anguish as it is explosive outburst, and the actress doesn’t miss a beat. Just watching that harrowing argument between Annie and her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), is like witnessing a study in family dysfunction and possible mental instability.
It’s heartbreaking then that the film abandons its elegant, classic approach – from teetering on the edge of creepiness to plunging into full-on supernatural horror – around the midway mark. It descends into a bloated mess of blood and fire, and culminates in a bizarre, outlandish climax that belongs in a different film.
Hereditary is ultimately a satisfying horror movie that falls short of true greatness, even as its leading lady delivers a level of acting rarely witnessed in the genre. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.
Rating: 3.5 / 5