I’m happy to bring news about “Hereditary,” a sensationally scary debut feature by Ari Aster. The family in this film is unhappy in ways that Tolstoy could never have dreamed of. Do its mysterious woes flow from nature, nurture or neither? I wouldn’t tell you even if I was sure, and it doesn’t matter all that much by the climax, which would be over the top if much of the film weren’t flying at the same altitude. What I will say is that a meta-mystery lurks here—how it is that this horror flick can be so shocking, so genuinely upsetting in spasms and spurts, yet at the same time so madly entertaining.
One answer is elegance. At the ripe young age of 31, Ari Aster brings impeccable technique and perfectly calibrated tone to his writing and direction. The e-word applies as well to the production design, the cinematography, the music and the editing.
The other answer is Toni Collette. She plays Annie, a wife and mother who’s just lost her own mom. Annie is at the center of this carnival of grief, and Collette gives herself to the role with all the restraint of a hurricane system making landfall.
Annie is an artist, a balsa-wood miniaturist who sublimates her life experience into eerily detailed models; she also builds doll houses that give the film its wonderfully distinctive visual motif—various houses inside a house that, like Russian dolls trapped in larger dolls, convey an impression of lives imprisoned by forces they can’t control. (In one example of Annie’s work, never mind her consuming curiosity about matters of the occult, a treatise called “Norms on Discerning Presumed Apparitions” can be seen on her computer, and on a teeny-tiny computer that she’s fashioned for a tiny room.)
So far I’ve said nothing about what happens, and I won’t, except to give you a heads-up on the subject of heads, and to note that, in variously ghastly ways, badness befalls everyone in this equal- opportunity collection of victims, meaning Annie’s husband, Steve, is played by Gabriel Byrne. Millie Shapiro is their daughter, Charlie, and Alex Wolff is their son, Peter. At least for a while, Peter seems to have the best shot at a normal life, and I don’t mean apparition- discerning norms. Ann Dowd brings serious spookiness to the enterprise as Joan, a friend in need for Annie and an avocational spirit medium.
Treatises could and probaby will be written on the film’s many and diverse sources of inspiration—the heredity of “Hereditary.” Some of them are easy to infer (“The Exorcist,” Medea, “Mommy Dearest,” Henry James and, why not, “Welcome To the Doll House”) Others are stated aloud, such breezy characters as Iphigenia and Clytemnestra. But the main wellspring of inspiration is the filmmaker’s own imagination. Haunted-house movies come and go. Here’s a haunted- houses movie for the ages.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.