It’s 2:38am and I’m convinced there’s someone, or some-thing, in the attic. I have Ari Aster’s first feature film Hereditary to thank for the past four nights of anxiety-induced sleeplessness.
Admittedly, I’m a lightweight when it comes to horror, susceptible to any number of cinematic scare tactics. I was a kid when Jaws came out in 1975 but every time I’ve gone swimming in the ocean since then my lizard brain insists on the inevitability of being eaten by a great white shark. Why then would I choose to see a film that’s being called “the scariest movie of 2018”? Two words: Toni Collette.
When I first read that Collette was the star, my mind raced back to her Academy Award-nominated performance in The Sixth Sense . In that M. Night Shyamalan film, she played the devoted mother of wide-eyed Haley Joel Osment, the kid who saw dead people while hanging out with Bruce Willis.
The Hereditary poster features an unsmiling Collette with an equally unsmiling girl, presumably her daughter. This advertisement (mis)leads one to expect a parallel ghost story, a thoughtful sequel of sorts. The Seventh Sense, if you will. But Aster cast Collette in the role deliberately—and I’m not exaggerating when I say—to turn our expectations of the consistently sympathetic actress upside down and inside out.
Casting is one of the key factors that lends familiarity and an intimacy to the unsettling world Hereditary lays out. Annie (Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) live with their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Their enormous country house is surrounded by tall trees, and isolated by them (the film was shot on location in a pristine suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah).
Byrne’s best known for portraying laconic, passive men like the brooding psychiatrist he played in the HBO series In Treatment. Like that character, Hereditary's Steve also deliberates, endlessly, and is acted upon rather than taking action himself. When, despite her escalating moods, Annie begs him to trust her, he folds—as we expect him to do.
The film opens on the afternoon of a funeral. Aster establishes a lugubrious atmosphere with an opening shot that slowly pans through a doll’s house, a meticulous reproduction of the family’s own home. The camera stops on what is certainly a doll—but isn’t. Steve enters his son’s room and the doll version of Peter wakes up from under the covers.
It’s an unsettling visual sleight indicating a secret and separate life of a house within the house, out of sync with its beautiful façade. And Annie, an artist, is the one who’s built and painted it to look oh-so real. The subtext inherent in the initial camera pan is also too deliberate to ignore: this family is under close observation by unseen eyes.
It’s Annie’s mother who recently died. But when she delivers the eulogy, Annie confesses to years of estrangement between them. Hereditary begins with people in mourning, but the director, who also wrote the film, maintains and extends that grim tone by troubling the family further—with what feels like an inexhaustible store of grief.
This is the third movie released in the past two years that concerns itself with the disintegration of the American nuclear family. Both Mother! and The Killing of a Sacred Deer offered ritualistic pagan sacrifice as a means to assuage, if not cure, a family’s inability to relate to each other and function in the world outside of the home. Despite some occasional cheesy special effects that signal spectral presences, <Hereditary provides yet another testament to the fact that something’s gone wrong deep inside the collective American psyche—an argument that has to go untested here so the ending remains unspoiled.
Because they’re relatively unknown to audiences, the movie’s wildcards are the kids, Wolff and Shapiro. Their reactions are unfamiliar to us and they add a destabilizing effect to the narrative. The presence of Ann Dowd as Joan, a newfound friend of Annie’s, does too, but in the way we’ve come to expect from her. In The Leftovers and The Handmaid’s Tale, Dowd summons menace with remarkable ease. Given her past relationship with a mother figure, Annie ought to know better than to trust in Joan. When she does, it becomes clear that Collette was cast not only for her association with the supernatural, but because of her role as an unpredictable wife and mother suffering from multiple personalities in The United States of Tara.
Hereditary banks on the audience’s willingness to trust Collette, hoping we’ll ignore or have forgotten the unpredictable side of the actress. Annie had a bad mother and the genes she inherited from her are turning out to be the dominant ones in her DNA. The film terrifies not because of frightening things in the attic, but because of what those frightening things imply. According to Aster’s design, nature triumphs over nurture. Instead of protecting them from harm, Peter and Charlie’s mother can damage them irreparably, and without any of them ever knowing the reasons why.
'Hereditary' is now playing in San Francisco at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Century San Francisco Centre 9 and AMC Metreon 16.