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When it comes to horror movies, it feels like a small miracle when a new movie comes out that is actually fresh and exciting, giving us a story that we haven’t seen a million times before. It’s even more shocking when critics start to rally around a horror film.
In recent years, we’ve had releases like “The Babadook,” “It Follows” and “You’re Next” that earned many strong reviews, and “Get Out” even managed a best picture nomination at the Oscars. “Hereditary” may not follow in those footsteps when it comes to mainstream awards, but the caliber of storytelling and acting on display catapult it ahead of most genre movies.
Toni Collette stars as Annie, an artist who lives in a beautiful, secluded home with her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her stoner son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and her young daughter, Charlie (Broadway actress Milly Shapiro). As our story begins, Annie’s estranged mother has just passed away in the house. Even though they didn’t speak for years before she got sick and had to enter hospice care, there was a very strong connection between her and the family, and their home.
Annie’s art finds her constructing elaborately detailed miniature sets. She has been prepping a gallery show of her work, which features tiny re-creations of the rooms of their family home and depicting different moments in her life. On one of the first nights after the death of her mother, she feels a presence in her workroom and even thinks that she sees her mother lingering in the corner.
The family is delivered another gut-punch of tragedy shortly after, and they never recover from it. Tensions are heightened, and relationships are strained.
Lest you think this is another run-of-the-mill ghost story, think again.
Collette gives an absolute tour de force performance of a woman who slowly becomes unhinged. And it gets even better once the phenomenal Ann Dowd turns up about halfway through as somebody Annie meets at a grief support group. This opens a door to a seance for trying to connect with the spirit world, and that kicks us into the completely and utterly terrifying final act.
It’s hard to believe that this is director Ari Aster’s debut feature film. His approach to the story is downright masterful, and the visuals are wildly inventive, utilizing some unusual angles and dolly shots to amp up the level of suspense along the way. And then there is the brilliant score by Colin Stetson that expertly adds to the fright without being manipulative. See it in the loudest theater possible where you’ll also be amazed at, among other things, the sound of buzzing flies in the surround channels.
In a post-film Q&A with actor Elijah Wood, Aster admitted that he was very focused on the family drama aspect of the story and that he doesn’t really see himself as a horror director. He had the cast and crew watch many movies that you might not expect to prepare for filming, including “The Ice Storm,” “Ordinary People” and “Don’t Look Now.” He also revealed that the first cut of the movie was three hours long, joking that “one day, you’ll see just how boring this could have been.”
There are no additional SXSW screenings of the film, but look for A24 to release it in theaters June 8. Grade: A-