“Hereditary” breathes dread and exhales death. It opens with an obituary’s white text stiffly spread over black, accompanied by a lurching, pall-bearing score. From there, a family’s blasé mourning distorts into frenzied grief at breakneck speed — the film that follows is a tightly wound funeral procession, violently careening into hell with the inevitability of a damned bloodline.
It’s a chilling wonder to behold — at one’s own risk, of course. Once again, wunderkind indie studio A24 indulges an up-and-coming auteur’s dark side, as it has with recent horror-art house hybrids including “The Witch” and “It Comes At Night.” Here, writer-director Ari Aster makes his feature debut with the Sundance-premiering “Hereditary,” which may be the best of the bunch, if not an all-time great.
Aster retains a concerning fascination with familial implosions, previously seen in his discomforting shorts such as “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” and “Munchausen.” In “Hereditary,” the subject of Aster’s signature severity is the Graham family, which, battered by tragedy, unravels in an increasingly disturbing fashion.
The family’s combustion depends on the bruising, unrelenting strength of Aster’s script. A sinister anxiety clings to every word, which proves essential for sustaining a second act that burns slowly, but scaldingly so.
It’s an agitating coil of tension that’s ultimately unleashed with devilish fury, offering a fevered final 15 minutes that transcends the macabre to become, dare one say, rather sublime. This isn’t to say that Aster entirely backloads the film’s frights.
Nightmare fuel abounds, though it’s cunningly paced with a deliberate restraint.
The film impressively derives its horrors by its fluency of film form alone, as announced by the very first shot — a beguiling long take, the internal logic of which proves horrific without doing anything particularly spooky at all.
What’s more, inspired production design offers a refreshing visualization of the supernatural — shadows obscure vaguely sketched phantoms, whose ambiguity terrifies with an eerie confidence that lesser films would overexploit with a cheap jump scare. Meanwhile, certain editing choices further fry the nerves, stitching together a diegetic world overrun by a chaotic cruelty.
And with Colin Stetson’s rumbling, grotesque score, the sounds of “Hereditary” render the on-screen devilry yet more discomforting, allowing the film to terrorize the senses on multiple fronts. It’s a testament to the film’s sound editing and design that the simple click of a tongue becomes its signature scare — a bloodcurdling idiosyncrasy of troubled youngster Charlie Graham (Milly Shapiro).
In fact, Shapiro herself manages to unsettle through body language alone. She’s that good, playing the role with a masterful opacity that shrouds a deep-seated infection. However, the film’s biggest surprise is Alex Wolff, who plays Charlie’s aloof teenage brother, Peter, with a dedicated intensity hitherto unseen. A remarkable portion of the film — including a scene of monumental import — hinges on Wolff’s performance, and he rises to the occasion with an admirable aplomb.
But make no mistake: “Hereditary” belongs entirely to Toni Collette, who delivers the performance of her career as Graham matriarch, Annie. When Annie’s exacting mother die, we expect Annie to reclaim a greater degree of control in her life, but tragically, that’s not to be.
Annie’s pained composure fractures, awakening a volatility that owes its teeth to Collette’s bitter expressivity. It’d be a shame if Collette’s uninhibited performance is lost in upcoming awards season conversations — an explosive dinner scene is practically tailor-made for an Academy Awards sizzle reel.
Possessed by powerhouse performances, “Hereditary” succeeds by chiefly operating as a bleak family drama, as deeply human and empathetic as the best of A24’s excellent oeuvre. Resultantly, the demons trailing the Graham family are not wholly unfamiliar — they’re resentment, selfishness and guilt, but mangled by evil itself. “This could happen to you,” the film posits.
In this sense, “Hereditary” doesn’t merely serve to scare. It imparts its darkness to the viewer, becoming an unholy communion. A heaviness threatens to linger, as does the click of Charlie’s tongue. See it, but not alone.
“Hereditary” is currently playing at California Theatre.