It’s easy to see why “Hereditary” was chosen to play in the Midnight section of the Sundance Film Festival. It’s a freaky trance-out of a supernatural thriller, all about a family that’s being torn apart by ghosts, and it’s full of things that would look right at home in the megaplex horror-film-of-the-week (except, in this case, for how artfully done they are). It has séances with mysterious moving objects. It has decapitated bodies and crawling ants (as opposed to, you know, buzzing flies). And it has visitations by figures from the afterlife, who stand stock still and nude and grinning in a way that’s more insidious than anything in the “Insidious” films. (At the sight of the first ghost, I literally felt a creeping chill pass through me.)
My question is: Why isn’t “Hereditary” part of the Dramatic Competition at Sundance? It appears the programmers may have some of the same anti-genre prejudice that the Motion Picture Academy does. They may have looked at “Hereditary” and thought: Very well done — but in the end, it’s just a horror film. Taken on its own terms, however, “Hereditary” may be the most exciting movie I’ve seen at Sundance this year. No ghost story is ever entirely new, but Ari Aster, writing and directing his first feature, has told the tale of a family wracked by psychological damage in which the ghosts are more than “metaphors,” and they aren’t just there to goose you. They’re part of the story. They’re the conduits through which disturbed impulses pass from one generation to the next.
“Hereditary,” which is being distributed by A24, is sure to get its shot in the megaplex, where it has every chance to win a major audience. But what viewers will discover is that the movie, unlike almost every mainstream horror film you see these days, has the substance to match its scares. It gets at something sophisticated: the way that mental and emotional damage becomes part of a family’s spirit, and is therefore passed on as if it were…a spirit. Wherever you stand on the subject of paranormal activity, this is a drama attuned to the ghosts of parent-child communion that live in all of us.
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The movie opens on the morning of a funeral: Annie Graham (Toni Collette), a gallery artist who makes intricate miniature models of rooms, is preparing to bury her mother, who we gather had a serious personality problem. Annie is married to the clipped, dour Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and they have two children: Peter (Alex Wolff), a morosely handsome teenage pothead who doesn’t quite fit in with the horndog dudes around him, and his younger sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a gawky odd duck of a girl whose anguish comes through in her slightly skewed, blankly haunted features — especially the sunken eyes that give her the air of someone decades older. Charlie stares, goes on listless walks, and scarfs chocolate bars. She also sees ghosts — like the weirdly happy specter who catches her eye, for an instant, at the funeral.
Charlie may be connected to the afterlife, but the movie takes off from Annie’s relationship with her late mother, whose attic boxes are full of dusty books on “spirituality.” We begin to see what she’s really about when Annie attends a support group for the grieving and lapses into a fraught monologue about the destructive person her mother really was, and the effect it had on her family. I’m not kidding when I say that this speech — and Toni Colette’s acting — could have come out of mid-period Ingmar Bergman. It’s suffused with torment of the most lived-in kind, and though Annie openly despises her mother, the demons, as it turns out, didn’t fall far from the tree.
The dramatic catalyst of “Hereditary” — the horrifying event that ramps it up to a place you never anticipated — occurs after Peter is forced to let Charlie tag along with him to a high-school party. There’s no denying that what happens next is an only-in-the-movies sort of freak accident, yet it creates after-shocks that ripple into an escalating vortex of dismay. Peter begins to get signals from ghosts — and, more than that, to take on the aspects of someone who died. Annie gets drawn, by the friendly support-group member Joan (Ann Dowd), into a world of séances. They call forth the dead in no time.
The audience, of course, tries to fit all these pieces together, but what it can’t guess (yet) is that the afterlife, in “Hereditary,” isn’t just a glorified costume-shop spook show designed by a clever filmmaker to terrify the characters (and the audience). What we’re seeing is the afterlife mounting a total emotional takeover of the here and now. Collette’s performance is staggering. She plays Annie as a woman who begins to wear her buried rage and guilt on the outside. It pours out of her, as if she were “possessed,” and indeed she is — but by what, or whom? The fear and violence that secretly dominate her express the spirits that came before her, incarnated by no one but herself.
A ghost story needs a haunted house, and “Hereditary” has a fantastic one. The Grahams live in an elegant and isolated brown-wood alpine home (it’s like a ski lodge with stained-glass windows) perched on a woodland mountain in what looks like the exurbs of the Pacific Northwest. (The movie was actually shot in Utah.) The place has a lot of chambers, including the one where Annie painstakingly crafts her own miniature rooms, and it has an attic (as in, don’t go in the…), so it qualifies as a darkly sinister gothic funhouse. Yet it’s also a home that projects a cozy middle-class past. Ari Aster directs slowly, meditatively, purging the film of any of the usual horror-video razzmatazz. Instead, he creates scary coherent spaces for the audience to sink into.
He also draws on some masterful influences. There’s a conspiracy in “Hereditary” that gives you enough creepy shivers of dread to evoke the one in “Rosemary’s Baby.” The way the movie uses ghosts to tap the hidden impulses of its characters is very much in the mood of “The Shining.” And there’s a distinct touch of “The Wicker Man” in how the ghosts turn out to be a terrifying sort of cult. In “Hereditary,” they’re here to frighten and disturb us. But the most disquieting thing of all is that they are us.