PLOT After a family matriarch dies, her daughter discovers clues to a dark past.
CAST Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff
RATED R (violence and gore)
BOTTOM LINE A new high point in modern horror, with a jaw-dropping performance from Collette. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Watching Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” with my children recently, I noticed something about empathy, fear and filmmaking. Bloodshed and violence certainly got my kids clutching the couch pillows, but what really freaked them out was the face of Doris Day when she screamed. Hitchcock knew — as did Roman Polanski, Michael Powell and other directors who left indelible marks on the horror genre — that there’s nothing more frightening than other people’s fear.
We have to care about them first, of course, and Ari Aster, the writer and director of “Hereditary,” understands this instinctively. Aster’s first feature film (following several acclaimed shorts) has its share of blood and gore, but it’s the people in this story that get under our skin. Starring Toni Collette as a woman who begins to suspect that her late mother left her under some kind of curse or spell, “Hereditary” is as richly drawn as any drama and directed with an enigmatic style that recalls filmmakers as disparate as Stanley Kubrick and Jane Campion. This is stomach-dropping, pit-of-your-soul horror, and a new high point in a genre that’s been full of them lately (see “The Babadook,” “Get Out,” “A Quiet Place” and others).
Collette, in an exquisitely fine-tuned performance, plays Annie Graham, an artist who re-creates her life in painstakingly detailed dioramas. It’s possible we are inside one: The film opens in Annie’s studio and zooms in on a miniature bedroom that, disorientingly, turns out to contain her teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff). He’s an amiable, easygoing kid, far easier than his sullen, slightly irritating younger sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Soon after the death of Annie’s mother, the family is hit by another tragedy, too ghastly to describe (and easily the film’s most rattling sequence). As Annie’s personality splinters under the strain, and clues to a dark conspiracy bubble to the surface, her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), begins to question her sanity.
For its artistry and sophistication, “Hereditary” is bound to draw comparisons to the horror masterpieces of the 1960s and ‘70s, particularly “Rosemary’s Baby.” A closer comparison, though, might be David Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” another debut film that unfolds like a nightmare and speaks its own symbolic language of fear. And Aster just might be, like Lynch, a major new talent. With this film, at least, he’s so good it’s scary.