Hereditary wants to do more than frighten. Witness the intricate family tree that the ghost story lays out, the thick web of alliances and acrimony between the branches of said tree, and the sedimented layers of guilt, resentment, and indignation that imbue every utterance that Toni Collette’s Annie Graham directs at her feckless firstborn. First-time writer-director Ari Aster clearly intends to devastate. But Hereditary only begins as a Greek tragedy. After a few too many twists and turns, it gets warped into a horror soap—an unnerving but ultimately numbing pile of calamities.
Every surface is dark and hard in the mammoth house where Annie, a diorama artist, resides with her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and her two teenage children, the older Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger Charlie (Milly Shapiro). In the days after her emotionally distant mom’s passing, Annie re-creates in miniature some of the most formative scenes between mother and adult daughter, like when the older woman would wrest the newborn Charlie from Annie’s arms to nurse the baby herself. Her mother suffered from dissociative identity disorder, Annie tells her grief recovery group, and her brother, who killed himself as an adolescent, was afflicted by schizophrenia. Annie must wonder what other misfortunes run through her veins—and that’s before one of her children turns up dead.
The moody and moving first half of Hereditary is much more compelling than its zigzagging second half. An allegorical weight grounds the spiky relationship between mother and surviving child—blood ties poisoned by a repressed maternal ambivalence that gradually manifests itself through unconscious violence. Aster’s script isn’t meticulous enough to explore in granular detail how the death further blights the relationship. But the eruption between mother and child, when it finally arrives, is moving all the same. Collette’s near-camp hysterics are terrifying in their unpredictability; we feel deeply for Annie’s loss, but we’re never quite sure when she might let her rage, her desire for death, and who knows what else take over. But it’s the glassy-eyed Wolff who unexpectedly steals the picture, his Peter recognizably douchey and heartbreakingly bewildered by the gravity of the consequences of his sins.
Like A Quiet Place—that other recent horror release modestly but effectively experimenting with the genre—Hereditary is so refreshing in part because it invents its own scare vocabulary. The sound we most come to dread is a common mouth click—one of Charlie’s tics—while a hovery, higher-than-normal camera placement and uncannily rigid camera pans suggest a spectral presence even in all-human scenes. But the film’s greatest special effect might be Ann Dowd, an actress with the unique ability to make her delight feel like a prelude to the end of the world. Dowd’s Joan, a fellow member of the therapy group, becomes the conduit through which Annie invites her deceased child back into their home before thinking through how an abrupt and gruesome demise might have changed the youngster—and what bad blood it might have left in its wake.
That scenario in itself would have provided more than enough material for a movie, but Hereditary keeps adding elements that may or may not play a role in the increasing chaos within the Graham family: a disturbed grave, a history of sleepwalking, unexplained beheadings, an ant infestation. The story doesn’t feel messy, exactly—it simply wants to keep us guessing. But once the metaphor of Annie’s baleful mourning is dropped for a series of other possibilities, the film feels emotionally aimless, even as it’s zooming toward a precise (if fairly predictable) reveal. What should feel like a bolt of lightning strikes like a wet towel instead. It stings for a second, and then you move on with your day.