"Heredity" - ★ ★ ★ ½
"Hereditary" creates the kind of psychological and atmospheric horror that burrows into your memory cells so that you can't forget what you've seen.
This impressive shudderfest from first-time director Ari Aster traffics in graphic imagery so upsetting and gruesome, you'd think that these scenes might mercifully come and go in quick edits.
Nope. Aster allows the camera to linger on these images, forcing us to take in the horrific details of these gross assaults upon our retinas.
Like John Krasinski's creature feature "A Quiet Place," Aster's "Hereditary" constructs its emotional core from guilt generated by the demise of a family member.
Unlike "A Quiet Place," it minimizes cheap jump-scares, and capitalizes on escalating dread similar to Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" with generous (perhaps too generous) allusions to Roman Polanski's supernatural classic "Rosemary's Baby."
Early in "Hereditary," the phenomenally versatile Australian actress Toni Collette issues such inhuman sounds of loss and grief, they feel too real, uncomfortably so.
She plays Annie Graham, a miniature house design artist whose not-quite-beloved 78-year-old mother has died, and Annie clearly feels bad she doesn't miss her more than she apparently should.
Gabriel Byrne plays Annie's husband Steve, a nice enough guy, but not the alpha male he later needs to be for their kids, brooding teenage Peter (a marvelously chameleonic Alex Wolff) and his younger, disturbingly odd sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who creates macabre drawings in her sketchbook and cuts the head off a dead bird with scissors.
Annie finds a book in Mom's stuff with a cryptic, handwritten note: "Our sacrifices will pale in the end next to our rewards."
Then, Mom starts appearing to Annie in dark rooms, and to Charlie against a backdrop of flames. They speak nothing of this.
We don't know the startling, bizarre background of Annie's twisted family tree until she unloads it during a self-help grief group meeting.
Joan (character actress Ann Dowd, currently providing bureaucratic menace to Hulu's superb "The Handmaid's Tale") catches Annie in the parking lot, and shows her how to relieve her grief by talking to her deceased loved ones through seances.
To further discuss the plot would be detrimental to the "Hereditary" experience.
Aster, who reportedly based this movie on his own terrible family histories, says in the production notes that he wanted "Hereditary" to be his version of "Janet Leigh stepping into the shower" from Alfred Hitchcock's plot-flipped "Psycho."
To the extent that the story constantly veers off into unexpected areas, he succeeds.
This movie comes with the usual horror staples: decapitated corpses, sinister reflections, presciently bad dreams, an emotionally wounded family under assault by evil forces, but with a diabolical finale that feels like a throwback to late '60s, early '70s cinematic terrors.
Saxophonist and avant-garde composer Colin Stetson constructs an effectively eerie, nerve-jangling score of noise and notes.
These elements support the film's chief asset, Collette's chilling performance, a raw, soul-searing expression steeped in the traditions of high Greek tragedy and used to maximum effect by Aster in a grand example of gripping Grand Guignol.
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Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
Directed by: Ari Aster
Other: An A24 release. Rated R for drug use, language, violence. 126 minutes