Hype is justified for horror hit ‘Hereditary’


Grade: 3 stars (out of 4)

Rating: R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity

Running time: 2:07

By Jake Coyle

AP Film Writer

In Ari Aster’s intensely nightmarish feature-film debut “Hereditary,” when Annie (Toni Collette), an artist and mother of two teenagers, sneaks out to a grief-support group following the death of her mother, she lies to her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) that she’s “going to the movies.”

A night out with “Hereditary” is many things, but you won’t confuse it for an evening of healing and therapy. It’s more like the opposite.

Aster’s film, relentlessly unsettling and pitilessly gripping, was a midnight sensation at Sundance and ever since has carried with it an ominous air of danger and dread: a movie so horrifying and good that you have to see it, even if you shouldn’t want to, even if you might never sleep peacefully again.

The hype is mostly justified. “Hereditary” is a strikingly accomplished debut that heralds the arrival of a new, brashly manipulative filmmaking talent. Aster’s film might be littered with horror cliches – candle-lit seances, creepy attics, satanic symbols, dogs that know something’s up – but the frightful power of “Hereditary” comes less from its genre framework than the menacing exactitude of its Greek tragedy tale about the horror of what “runs in the family.”

It begins with a succinct three-paragraph newspaper obituary. The 78-year-old mother of Annie has died, and her sudden absence from their mountain home has an eerie if relieving feeling. Annie makes elaborate and autobiographical miniatures (following the obit is a slow shot into one of her dioramas, seamlessly morphing into her son’s bedroom) and she’ll later recreate the funeral service.

But her mother’s passing is complicated. When Annie reluctantly joins the support group, she, in a rush, explains how her mother was manipulative, how she wouldn’t let her mom near their first son, Peter (Alex Wolff), but, out of guilt, allowed her to grow close with their now troubled and unnerving 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), whom she immediately “sank her claws” into. Dementia, psychosis, suicide and multiple personality disorder are all in the family history, she says.

“She was a very difficult woman,” says Annie. “Which maybe explains me.”

The mother may be dead, but she can just as surely control her daughter’s life from beyond the grave. Let’s just say things start going a tad awry.

“Hereditary” has you turn over and over questions of what’s really happening. Is Annie’s mother a supernatural force or is Annie conjuring her own insanity? “Hereditary” loosens its grip on you as it wobbles toward an ending that trades ruthless family dramatics for a more genre-typical occult conclusion. But it’s the first time that you can breathe and relax: Oh, right. It’s just a movie.

Subscribe Today

Sign up for our email newsletter to receive daily news.

Want more? Click here to subscribe to either the Print or Digital Editions.