Movie Review: “Hereditary” (R)

If you’re a fan of horror, then the grim and terrifying “Hereditary” is definitely for you. But this feature-length debut from director Ari Aster isn’t simply a surface-level horror show. No cats jumping on the window sill here. No, this is the kind of unnerving horror that’s bursting at the seams with an ominous sense of dread, and “Hereditary” gets under your skin in a big way.

As “Hereditary” opens, distraught Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is in the midst of dealing with the death of her mother, Ellen. During the funeral, it becomes clear that Annie’s life growing up was anything but peachy, but an apologetic letter left behind by the family matriarch suggests that all will be fine moving forward.

Following the funeral, Annie attempts to move on with her life alongside husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and their two children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Unfortunately though, a horrific incident plunges the Graham family into complete and utter chaos, and ultimately what begins as an examination into family dysfunction, grief, guilt, and possible mental illness takes a detour into what could be best described as sinister in nature.

Some of us have branches on our family tree that we don’t like to talk about, and “Hereditary” deals with such a branch. That said, this is one scary-ass tree, and this particular branch is one I’d never want to tend with. Unfortunately, Annie had to deal with it all her life, but the question is can she break the cycle that’s responsible for plaguing her past?

Toni Collette is absolutely fantastic in this picture. I’ve been a fan since “Muriel’s Wedding,” and this movie is about as far removed from that one as you can get. Annie is an extremely complicated character. She’s vulnerable and human to be sure, but there’s another part of her that suggests she might be one fry short of a Happy Meal. Collette plays all of these sides to grand dramatic affect. Alex Wolff (“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”) hits all the right notes as Peter, a resentful teenager struggling to communicate with his lost soul of a mother. This young actor brings a lot of emotion to the table and pulls off some very effective moments throughout. Milly Shapiro is given the daunting task of portraying the overtly odd youngster here, and she does so beautifully by putting her own unique spin on the kind of character we’ve seen in many a horror film. Rounding out a stellar cast is veteran Gabriel Byrne. “The Usual Suspects” star is fittingly understated in the role of a father who’s becoming increasingly tired of enabling his wife’s seemingly erratic behavior.

“Hereditary” is an expertly crafted film, and it benefits from a moody, atmospheric vibe that might remind some viewers of Robert Eggers’ “The Witch.” The subtext and the attention to character detail also bring to mind Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook.” Of course, there’s another classic movie that appears to be an inspiration here, but to name drop that one would give too much away, so I’ll refrain from doing so.

All you really need to know is that with “Hereditary,” Ari Aster has fashioned a truly scary cinematic experience. But it’s one that is as dramatic and tragic as it is creepy and evil. It’s astonishing that this is his feature-length directorial debut because he handles the bulk of the proceedings like a seasoned pro. Aster never loses sight of the characters in the piece, but when it’s time for the spook-alley theatrics to let loose, he delivers in a big way. Seriously, there are a handful of creep-out moments in this picture that are absolute all timers. What’s more, “Hereditary” is beautifully shot, and the masterful sound design goes a long way to drive the tone of the film home.

It’s safe to say that A24 has a hit on their hands with “Hereditary.” It delivers the scares to be sure, but it’s also emotionally raw and extremely well acted. And the final act is sure to be a major topic of discussion. Yes, “Hereditary” is a winner, and it’s the kind of movie that’s best experienced with a packed house. Just be sure you don’t let the branch hit you on the way out.

“Hereditary” opens June 8.

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