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Milly Shapiro likes chocolate, dead animals, and drawing scary pictures in Hereditary.

Some horror films suggest that the real evil to fear isn’t vampires or werewolves or the like but rather our own human flaws and fears and vulnerabilities that drive us to do terrible things. Hereditary, on the other hand, is clever enough to suggest that maybe evil is even further ingrained in your family history, lying dormant in your genes and just waiting for the right moment to whisper in your ear that you should cut your wife’s throat and strangle your baby. It’s this idea that is the source of the hype behind this remorseless and remarkable horror film.

The film begins with an obituary notice for an old woman survived by a daughter named Annie (Toni Collette) and her family: stolid husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), stoner teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and creepy-ass 12-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who never smiles, says very little, cuts the heads off dead animals, and has an unnerving habit of making a clucking sound with her tongue. Annie herself is an artist who makes dioramas of her life using dollhouse furniture, including several with her dead mother looming menacingly over the children and one with a realistic figurine of Peter lying decapitated on his bed. The catalyst for the story isn’t the old woman’s death but when nut-allergic Charlie eats a nut-filled piece of cake by accident –– or perhaps not by accident.

The singular horribleness of what follows that incident marks a hella impressive feature debut for writer-director Ari Aster. He borrows M. Night Shyamalan’s trick of focusing on an actor’s face as he or she stares at something amiss that’s out of camera range, but his dollhouse-like design for the family’s home is strangely Wes Anderson-like, with lots of open spaces for sinuous tracking shots. Even if you sometimes get the sense that this family might solve their problems by selling the place and moving to a beach in Florida, any horror filmmaker who can engineer scares in broad daylight has my admiration.

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Even more fearsome than his contributions is the actors’. This is especially true of Collette, as grief drives Annie hellishly forth to investigate the mental illness and suicide in her family tree, come what may. During a family dinner scene, she radiates hostility toward her family just by looking down at her plate and picking through her food, until Peter tries to prod her and she goes nuclear on the boy. A terrible urgency infuses not only her bursts of anger but also her pleading with the people around her to believe what she’s found out about her mother’s family, and she makes harrowing stuff out of Annie’s monologue about what she did one night while she was sleepwalking. In one late scene when someone dies in front of her, her face suddenly goes from traumatized to blank, a reaction more terrifying than anything. 

She gets good help from Shapiro, who will haunt your nightmares, and Wolff, who’s especially good as the family demons start following Peter to school. There’s also a fantastic showpiece for the never-fully-appreciated Ann Dowd as a woman in Annie’s grief support group who convinces her to participate in a séance. Her cheery wholehearted belief laced with unnameable glee as she talks to her dead grandson is executed in a bravura fashion. Somehow, you know that when Annie tries to conduct a séance of her own, she’s going to contact something that won’t send her a message of “I love you.”

I do wish Aster had included a bit more room for a clinical interpretation, like The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch did. This movie’s Satanic conclusion is a bit underwhelming compared to the buildup, but that might be just me. I find a universe ruled by an evil god to be more comforting than one ruled by chaos. For the same reason, I never cared that much for Rosemary’s Baby. You know what, though? The indelibly unwholesome Hereditary does earn its comparison to that movie, which tells you a lot about how accomplished it is.

Hereditary

Starring Toni Collette. Written and directed by Ari Aster. Rated R.

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