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Nightmare anyone? ‘Hereditary’ changes the rules of horror

June 13, 2018 03:18 pm

What is the true wellspring of horror? Is it the dark, deep recesses of our inner minds creating monsters that eventually creep into our reality? Or is it the shudder that travels through the body when we are confronted by inexplicable, unseen forces?

Writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature, “Hereditary,” asks those questions, and many more. By the end, it may be more of the same old blood, but it’s been packaged in remarkable new bottles, a fresh approach to the cinema’s recent horror sensations.

“Hereditary” stands as one of the most upsetting, most frightening horror films in years.

The film’s setup is deceptively simple: The Graham family is attending a funeral. Annie (Toni Collette) delivers a eulogy to her mother, who has died of cancer. The effect of her death has shaken the domestic harmony between Annie and her patient husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and two children, sullen teen Peter (Alex Wolff) and creepy daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro).

In its staging and execution, “Hereditary” possesses the logic of a nightmare, a feature-length procession of chilling and inexplicable details that are at first insignificant until, at the climax, they coalesce into a mosaic of dread and terror.

Aster, like Hitchcock, takes perverse delight in playing with the audience’s susceptibilities. Is that a ghost in the dark corner of the room? Or is it a toy clown in a chair? Or is it some monstrosity we can’t even imagine?

The low-key supernatural elements of the story take a nasty turn during a chance meeting between Annie and another recently bereaved woman, Joan (Ann Dowd), a spiritualist who convenes a seance that, in its intense simplicity, stays unnervingly faithful to a similar scene in another quietly powerful thriller from 1964, “Seance on a Wet Afternoon.”

With the end of the seance scene and its most important line, “Are there any spirits present with us?” “Hereditary” unleashes its full battery of scares, and the effect is shocking and overwhelming. All the early clues to the puzzle, offered sparingly and matter-of-factly, return to refocus our expectations and prepare us for the film’s unpredictable run to the finish line.

Aster openly borrows from other horror movies, marshals their most effective tricks and twists them into plausible new shapes. There is the domestic paranoia of “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), the eerie wide-angle photography of “The Shining” (1982) and, to add a contemporary influence, the haunting stillness of “It Follows” (2015).

Taking a few more pages from Hitchcock, Aster understands how careful manipulation of tension can transform the singular, most banal image into a shot of pure terror. The best horror films don’t require gore and guts to scare us, not when a skillful director like Aster (or Hitchcock) can probe so deeply into our subconscious fears that horror becomes indecipherable.

“Hereditary” offers the opposite of the uncomplicated metaphor that “The Babadook” conveyed. The ghosts of “Hereditary” don’t embody alienation, depression or grief. In “Hereditary,” the ghosts are just ghosts; but as with the 1960 classic “The Innocents,” it’s the characters’ interaction with them that gives the film its frightening emotional subtext.

Annie has been estranged from her mother even before her death, admitting at her funeral that she was a woman with her own “secrets and private rituals,” and expressing surprise that so many mourners turned up for a woman “who had no friends.” And so, the film’s atmosphere of unease is established.

“Hereditary” traverses the terrible line where grief and guilt intersect. At a support group meeting, Annie describes the awful pain of feeling responsible for the deaths in her family and her powerlessness to prevent them. “You can’t be blamed,” a group member tells her. “I am blamed,” Annie cryptically replies.

Toni Collette is astonishing as a woman whose family is crumbling before her eyes. Collette discards all affectations, strips away mannerism and creates a realistically tormented wife and mother coming apart at the seams. Her emotions explode into long, profanity-laced, almost comic rants. She’s a sleepwalker who seems to embody all of her family’s fears and anxieties. And she’s an artist whose intricately constructed dollhouses are her means of gaining some control over her life.

Fueled by anguish, guilt and secrecy, “Hereditary” gives terrifying life to its own ghosts, spirits that take hold and won’t let go. Weeks after seeing “Hereditary” you may walk into a dark room, catch familiar feeling of dread and ask yourself, “What is that in the corner?