Family monsters

“Asked mom if we could go to the haunted house. She said, ‘What’s wrong with the one we live in?’”

“Asked mom if we could go to the haunted house. She said, ‘What’s wrong with the one we live in?’”

A family gets their proverbial ass viciously, horrifically kicked in Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster’s more-than-impressive feature debut. This is a horror movie that will bruise your brain, make your blood run cold and stay in your system well after you’ve left the theater.

Annie (an incredible Toni Collette) has just lost her controlling, creepy mother. Annie has some control issues of her own, which sometimes manifest in her professional creation of miniature models—models often depicting her own home life with husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, doing his best work in years), son Peter (an impressive Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, who will break your heart). While every member of the family seems to be earnest and decent, they are also dysfunctional with a capital “D.”

The loss of her mom, pressure for an upcoming show for her miniatures and the demands of parenthood have Annie on edge, to the point where she seeks counseling. At a support group for people mourning the recent loss of loved ones, Annie meets Joan (the remarkable Ann Dowd), a cheery woman who, nonetheless, has recently lost her son.

When tragedy strikes, Annie finds herself leaning on Joan a little more, to the point where she accepts teachings on how to do a séance and communicate with the recently departed. Annie does a couple of rituals at her house, and it all seems innocent enough until creepy apparitions start appearing in the corner and malevolent spirits start messing things up for Peter, who responds by hitting the bong hard.

The movie is a ghost story, a demon story and a witch story rolled into one, with elements of The Witch, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and, yes, The Sixth Sense (that vibe owes a lot to the presence of Collette). It’s also one of the more powerful depictions of a family falling apart in recent years, making it an excursion into horror with an extra layer of depth.

The creeping dread factor starts early in Hereditary and never lets up. Aster proves to be a master of atmospheric scares, relying less upon jolts and gore, and more upon lingering shots in dark corners where you can sort of make out a ghost staring at you. Everything works up to a frightening puzzler of a finale that might have you initially asking, “WTF?” but eventually thinking, “Oh … that’s some messed-up shit right there.”

Collette tears your face off as Annie, a seemingly decent person who reveals a lot of mommy issues—regarding her own mom and her current role as a matriarch—as things unfold. Annie isn’t an openly bad person, but as the demons start to manifest and her mother’s crimes boil to the surface, she becomes a seriously, epically bad mom. Collette mixes a quiet, withdrawn demeanor with moments of visceral, outward nastiness that make Annie an unreliable sort at best. Collette makes every step of this tormented mom’s unfortunate journey mesmerizing.

Wolff, who is building up a great career with solid turns in Patriots Day, My Friend Dahmer and Jumanji: Welcome to Jungle, gives an incredibly raw, emotionally jarring performance as the son who doubts his mom and craves stability. The destruction of his home life coincides with his transition to manhood, and puberty supremely sucks for this guy. Wolff has moments in this movie when he seems so realistically disturbed that you might mistake this movie for a documentary.

With Hereditary, Aster gives the horror genre the kind of film that will be around for years. It has some images—does anything suck more than a smiling ghost?—that will haunt your dreams, for sure. It also has a sort of enveloping darkness that will leave you perhaps a bit unsettled and on edge.

It’s as unpleasant as they come, and, as a horror movie fan, I say amen to that.