"Hereditary," the new horror film and directorial debut for writer/director Ari Aster, is easily one of the most terrifying visions brought to the big screen in recent years.
It succeeds in great measure thanks to its cast and its patient, methodical approach to telling a story about a doomed family slowly unraveling in the face of tragedy, loss, and manipulation by forces they can barely comprehend.
More simply put, this film gets in your head, messes with it, and is sure to leave you thinking about it for hours after, whether you want to be or not.
What's it about?
As "Hereditary" opens, the Graham family -- artist mom Annie (Toni Collette), doctor dad Steven (Gabriel Byrne), high school-aged Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are mourning the loss of the family's matriarch, Annie's mother Ellen.
After the funeral, Annie notices Charlie having the hardest time coping with the loss of her granny. The two were especially close, closer even than Annie was to her own mother, who could be cold, cruel and secretive, and at the end seemed lost to the ravages of dementia.
But Annie has little time to help Charlie through the pain before tragedy strikes the family again. What follows from there is an inexorable descent into anxiety, paranoia and finally paralyzing terror as the Grahams come face-to-face with a destiny set in motion years before without their knowledge or understanding.
What's arguably most striking about Aster's crafting of "Hereditary" is the deliberate avoidance of techniques used in contemporary horror films to scare audiences.
There are very few, if any, "gotcha" moments or jump scares here. Instead, Aster relies on ominous music, lighting, disturbing imagery and a slow, deliberate pace to build a sense of dread in the audience.
He also uses a great many straight-on close-up shots of the film's cast as they react to something horrifying they're either seeing or are afraid to look at off-screen. The result is an effective sharing of the character's fear -- the character doesn't want to see what's there, and neither do you, and the dread only builds as the camera slowly pans to show you exactly what you don't want to see.
Stellar cast makes it work
Of course, none of those stylistic choices work if the cast doesn't effectively convey the scares.
Thankfully, "Hereditary" features two celebrated actors with plenty of experience in the genre to get the job done, as well as two younger performers who do more than hold their own. Toni Collette delivers a haunting portrait of Annie, whose strained relationship with her mother and emotionally troubled past add layers of complexity to her performance.
Byrne, Wolff and young Milly Shapiro, making her feature film debut, all step up their game to keep up with Collette. Wolff in particular stands out in what could be a breakout role for the performer -- like Collette, he's asked to convey to the audience a great deal of the film's anxiety and terror via Peter's reactions to things happening just slightly off-camera, and he impactfully delivers.
All that said, "Hereditary" may not work for horror movie fans who enjoy a quicker pace and more jump scares. At just over two hours, it's long for a contemporary horror film, and as stated earlier, Aster makes no effort to move things along, instead banking on the film's slow burn to achieve maximum tension and impact.
But if you're a fan of classic psychological horror, high on atmosphere and low on gore and gimmicks, put "Hereditary" on your list of must-sees this summer. It delivers the goods, and may even make you want to see it again to catch details you may miss the first time around when you're, you know, covering your eyes because you don't want to see what's coming.
Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, with Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd. Directed by Ari Aster.
Running time: 125 minutes
Rated R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity.