It seems every year births an artistic horror film upon which critics bestow raves and genre fans pin their hopes. Hereditary, from first-time feature filmmaker Ari Aster, is the real deal, not some abstruse pretender to the throne. Aster’s debut stars Toni Collette—in a performance deserving of every seemingly hyperbolic accolade—as Annie Graham, a mother of two who has just lost her own mother. In her eulogy, Annie describes her mother as mysterious, and later, she tells a grief support group that their relationship was strained at best.
Annie’s mother struggled with dissociative identity disorder and dementia. Now, Annie is seeing apparitions and, after another family shocker, worries for the safety of her own children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Eventually, Annie begins to question whether her mom was actually crazy or whether she ran a coven of devil worshipers. The other option, considered by Annie’s long-suffering husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is that she has her mother’s rebellious genes.
Wisely, Aster crafts an arcane film loaded with terrifying imagery and shocks built out of truly disturbing notions, but still tells a cogent story. Too often, narrative inexplicability is used as a terror substitute in horr-art. Collette—no stranger to multiple personalities after portraying Tara Gregson’s seven personalities for three seasons on Showtime’s “United States of Tara”—ensures that Annie is not simply a one-dimensional scream queen. She is an angry woman, a fierce mother and possibly a danger to herself and others. She should already be headlining the shortlists for year-end awards.
Artistic pedigree aside, Hereditary morphs from a devastatingly opaque family drama to a frightening film. Recent films have attempted the difficult move of channeling the occult terror of the late ’60s and early ’70s, but few have stuck the landing like Hereditary. As a shorthand descriptor, Hereditary could be accurately titled Rosemary’s Mother, and Exorcist comparisons are rarely applied this truthfully in horror advertising. The control, presence and often absence of sound is such a key to cinematic terror. Charlie’s tongue click is sure to replace The Conjuring’s handclap for most terrifying noise to make in a dark room in the middle of the night to scare your spouse or younger sibling.
Fans of The Witch have a new champion—one that should scare the bejesus out of mainstream moviegoers as well. How much do you trust your mother?