Dark Forces Are Summoned in Brilliant and Unnerving ‘Hereditary’

The best way to describe “Hereditary” is as a nightmare. A work of pure atmosphere and dread, it knows how to unnerve the audience with images and sound that feel pulled from a disturbed subconscious. There are indeed spirits in this movie, and séances and strange visions, but director Ari Aster is an artist of gothic refinement. He doesn’t just throw “boo” moments at you, he envelopes the viewer in a threatening environment which slowly builds to a satanic crescendo. This is an impressive feature debut for Aster, who until now has only directed short films. “Hereditary” is a haunted house movie that isn’t fibbing.

The story focuses on the Graham family as it mourns the death of their matriarch. The deceased’s daughter, Annie (Toni Collette) and her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), live with their children, high schooler Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie is an artist who crafts stunning miniatures which look like real life as shrunk. Charlie begins to sense a strange presence around her, and begins seeing strange, vague and quick apparitions which she keeps to herself. One night Peter decides to go party with friends, but his vague explanation of where he is going prompts Annie to push him into taking Charlie along. A horrific tragedy soon strikes, leaving the family numb and trapped in subdued pain. Annie attends a therapy group and meets a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd), who tries to get Annie interested in séances in order to deal with loss. But soon strange, unexplainable and disturbing occurrences take place in the house, shaking the family to its foundations and forcing Annie to search into clues in the past.

This is all one can say about the plot of “Hereditary” without ruining its effect. In the tradition of excellent recent horror films like “The Witch,” the movie takes its time in immersing the viewer in its setting, never releasing its sense of dread. What the filmmakers understand is precisely how fear works. We are instinctively afraid of darkness, the idea of strange presences, and the fear of supernatural possibilities. Peter will lie in bed at night and the shape of a chair could be mistaken for an apparition. But was it a mistake? Like a dream some of the imagery is vague, but striking. Was that an old woman sitting in a ring of fire? Did Annie hear the voice of a dead person calling out? Insects, faces and even classrooms feel disturbed. Aster’s brilliant technique is to hint at strange happenings, then shake our sensibilities with sudden images or scenes of sheer, unrestrained horror. An early shot of a decapitated head on a road side is only the beginning. The real scares come when Aster seems to have made a pact with dark forces, slowly caging in the family in their accursed home with moments of nightmarish intensity.

As a horror piece this film is beautifully structured. Aster and his fantastic cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, film in baroque textures, bathing school hallways and the interiors of a home in subtle, ominous shadows. Annie’s miniatures are contrasted with the real world, with Pogorzelski flowing in and out of the art and reality, creating a sense of entrapment. The music by Colin Stetson creates an eerie environment, making quiet, passive scenes feel as if something horrible is waiting underneath the surface. Stetson will make a note build and build during a scene, and then we cut to another moment, without some surprise. This has the disquieting effect of keeping the viewer on edge, not knowing when something will happen. “Hereditary” moves in layers, revealing a little more as the story advances until it all culminates in fire and blood. Some of the classic ideas that you usually find in ghost stories have a presence here. Strange, soft light moving across a room, disembodied noises following a character even away from home, the conjuring of spirits by candlelight. But it all takes on a menacing feel because Aster doesn’t use these details for loud, bombastic special effects. “Hereditary” gets under your skin, then it unleashes hell. A good horror film will make you believe in the moment, as it is happening in the story. Without spoiling, it is safe to say that even if you may not believe in spirits, this film does.

“Hereditary” also has a deep effect because it never cheapens its story. The ghouls and rituals are a dark cloud hovering over a blisteringly realistic portrayal of a family in crisis. A scene of Peter in shock following a tragedy is searing in its quiet tension. Too numb to do anything or process what has happened, Peter simply walks to bed. Dramatically the best scene is a brutal dinner table explosion where Annie unleashes on the family with a piercing, savage honesty about how she feels. It has the authenticity of how families can say the most hurtful things at the table. Milly Shapiro as Charlie has the perfect, strange presence of a child slowly stepping into a dark situation. This home is haunted, by the living and the dead.

Be warned, this is indeed a scary movie. Like the recent and much louder “A Quiet Place,” this is cinema designed to slowly assault your senses and make you look over your shoulder on your way home. Dark forces are summoned, unmentionable things lurk in the attic, and the family tree is full of sleepwalkers prone to strangling someone in their beds. Recommended for those who seeking a movie for escape, into nightmares.

Hereditary” releases June 8 in theaters nationwide.