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Hereditary review - a uniquely petrifying masterpiece

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Verdict: Toni Collette commands Ari Aster's astonishing debut, which is destined to go down as a horror classic.

Unsettled by her lack of grief following the death of her enigmatic mother, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) joins an evening bereavement support group, unbeknownst to her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne). By day, Annie works as a miniaturist, creating tiny rooms populated by figures in her own life – a practice disturbingly imitated by her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), whose penchant for creating makeshift toys extends to nonchalantly snipping the head off a dead pigeon and sticking it to a newly crafted doll.

In contrast, big brother Peter (Alex Wolff) is as regular a teen as they come, spending his time smoking pot behind the bike sheds and floundering to impress his class crush. But when unutterable tragedy strikes, repressed grief is released as ceaseless dread. When a woman from the support group (Ann Dowd) urges Annie to hold séances, the family begins to break apart, and Peter becomes the protagonist-victim of an increasingly terrifying, inherited fate.

Plot wise, there’s little to separate Hereditary from your average multiplex scare vehicle – its supernatural narrative has more in common with mainstream horrors like The Conjuring (2013) than fellow A24 indies Under the Skin (2014) and The Witch (2015). Moreover, the film doesn’t put forward a singular high-concept gimmick to achieve its frights (as in dethroned horror-of-the-year A Quiet Place), opting instead for the usual eclectic evils: ghosts, dolls, insects and the rest.

So far, so second hand; except the mastery of Hereditary is that it manages to inject a freshness into every tired horror trope it indulges itself in. Its success is in part owing to the technical execution. Pawel Pogorzelski’s compelling cinematography renders real-life locations as artificial-looking as Annie’s miniatures, and he and writer-director Ari Aster fashion some truly unforgettable imagery. Aster’s direction (this is his debut feature, astonishingly) prefers slow pans over jump scares, just as Colin Stetson’s immersive score eschews sudden screeching strings in favour of mounting dread.

But what really raises Hereditary above its more conventional aspects is the quartet of actors playing the film’s troubled family, all of whom, working off a tight screenplay by Aster, bring to the film a degree of psychological realism usually neglected by the genre. Wolff and Byrne take on the generic roles of stoner teenager and sceptical partner respectively, but manage to ground their astute performances and avoid cliché. Even Milly Shapiro, playing the film’s most obviously messed-up character, plays Charlie’s childhood insecurities with upsetting truthfulness.

The highest praise, however, must go to Toni Collette. Aster repeatedly uses close-up reaction shots to mine his characters’ faces, and in Collette he strikes gold – her suppressed anguish is distressing, her unleashed terror is chilling. When she loses her head (metaphorically speaking, though considering Hereditary's motif of decapitation a literal reading can be excused) and unleashes a terrible secret on her son, it’s more shocking a moment than any of the film’s supernatural shocks.

After a first act that culminates in a horrifying accident, Aster takes his foot off the peddle and affords us time with the family. His approach is patient but never boring, putting all the elements in place for a finale of extraordinary power.

The great horror classics – films like Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1973) and The Shining (1980) – gradually become subsumed into the culture by way of influence and parody, and there comes a point at which, for younger generations, it’s impossible to know the true terror of watching those films when they were released. Watching Hereditary, completely consumed by terror, I could only think: this is how it felt.

Hereditary is out now, distributed by Entertainment Film Distributors. 

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