“Hereditary,” the Scariest Movie of the Year By Far, Is Propelled by an Oscar-Worthy Performance by Toni Collette


JUNE 21, 2018

“Hereditary” is not only scary, but it’s really scary, though not in the way that you may think.

This is not a film that is full of jump scares — a film that says “boo” and expects you to react.  “Hereditary” is a film that gets under your skin, not unlike “Rosemary’s Baby” or “The Exorcist,” made by a real artist who has something to say.  And several days after seeing it, I’m still creeped out by “Hereditary.”  In this case, it’s writer/director Ari Aster in his first feature film who’s responsible for my recent bad dreams.  I wish him nothing but damnation and success.

“Hereditary” is filled with potential spoilers which I will do my best to avoid.  Annie Graham (Toni Collette), a miniaturist artist, is grieving the loss of her mother with whom, let’s say, she has had a contentious relationship.  Her family — husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (the wonderful Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (great discovery Milli Shapiro) — take the loss in stride but not to the degree with which Annie grieves.

Suddenly the family is shocked with another tragic jolt (of which I will say no more), and they begin to recognize that they may be suffering from a curse foisted upon them by Annie’s late mother.  Just as I had labeled “Get Out” as if “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” was remade as a horror film, “Hereditary” is “Ordinary People” redone the same way — smart, scary horror.

Jolted by the family’s tragedies, Annie seeks solace from a grief support group, where she is befriended by Joan (the remarkable Ann Dowd, Emmy winner for “The Handmaid’s Tale”) who turns out to have far more connections to Annie’s family than she lets on.

“Hereditary” is a lean mean horror machine.  The fact that this is a feature film debut by a new director is astonishing, because his skill in not only writing this script but bringing it to life in such a taut tough way is truly impressive.

Possibly more than any other genre, horror really relies on its actors to sell the fact that the fear in their eyes is real.  Byrne’s Steve is a man caught in the middle, desiring above all to keep his family together while having to deal with his out-of-control wife.  And Shapiro displays a visage that causes unease even as we wonder what her role in this family curse could be.

As Peter, Wolff delivers one of the best supporting performances of the year as a high school student who has no idea what is happening to his family but who suddenly realizes that the family’s curse is actually aimed at him.

But ultimately, “Heredity” belongs to Toni Collette.  Her Annie has no idea what’s happening to her, and as she comes to grips with the fact that her family has inherited her mother’s curse, Annie tries to control her hysteria, but she is unable to keep it in check.  Yet Collette’s performance is anything but hysterical — if you can step back (difficult to do, I know, given the frenzy in “Hereditary”), you can appreciate just how just how well thought-out Collette’s performance is, building Annie’s hysteria layer by layer, and one that is certainly worthy of an Academy Award nod.  Granted, Oscar nominations for actors in horror movies are few and far between (although Ellen Burstyn managed it for “The Exorcist” and Jodie Foster actually won for “Silence of the Lambs”), but Collette more than earns what would be her second nomination.

I know many movie fans who tend to avoid horror films for whatever reason, but if you’re a fan of great film acting, you owe it to yourself to gird up and experience the ride on which Toni Collette takes you in “Hereditary.”