What more indefatigable enemy is there than the family tree, the idea that one’s worst nightmares have been inherited and are doomed to recur from generation to generation? Ari Aster’s debut film, Hereditary, is an impressive, wrenching piece of horror that draws all its power from that notion—that we’re cursed, as it were, to be our parents’ children. Aster has crafted a story with one foot in the world of the tense kitchen-sink drama and the other in something far more supernatural, and while it doesn’t fully succeed at blending the two genres together, it does a pretty slick job trying to.
“My mother was a very secretive and private woman,” Annie Graham (Toni Collette) says at her mom Ellen’s funeral. “She was a very difficult woman, which maybe explains me.” It’s the kind of vague statement, shrouded in euphemism, that one might make about a troublesome parent. At the start, it’s unclear what exactly was so secret about Ellen’s life, but what’s obvious is the miserable impact she had on Annie, played with intense, guarded fearfulness by Collette.
Annie is married to the affable Steve (Gabriel Byrne), with whom she has two kids, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Together, they all live in a nice big house, filled with hidden corners and long corridors best suited for drawn-out scenes of suspense. But a part of Annie is stuck in a tortured past the viewer isn’t shown, except via the miniaturized, dollhouse-like pieces of art she creates. It’s her static way of reckoning with bygone ills, frozen into tableaus that she can control. It’s when Annie loses that sense of control that Hereditary goes truly wild.