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Hereditary

Year: 2018
Production Co: Palmstar/A24
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro

After Get Out became the first genre film in what felt like forever to get not only a mention but a top award at the Oscars, it was inevitable it would embolden other writers or directors (or at least the marketing executives at distributors) to start talking up other horror movies in the same breathy tones.

It's probably impossible to figure out if Hereditary got as much attention as it did because of the early awards buzz (punters take little notice of chatter in the film industry comment bubble), but while this movie has a lot to recommend it, it's not as neatly constructed as Get Out, nor does it have a MeToo or race relations theme that elevates it to the attention of the cinerati so much.

But it does have two great strengths. First is some very effective horror movie chills without having to resort to buckets of fake blood or cats leaping out of broom closets, and second is Toni Collette. Back when she was in Japanese Story, I remember rolling my eyes at all the reviews talking about how 'naked' her performance was but being thoroughly convinced by the time it was over that we were in the presence of a modern acting master.

She's just as effortlessly good here. Now in her mid 40s and never really fitting into the mould of a Hollywood babe either in her look or her choice of roles, it seems to have unshackled Collette from a whole lot of demands and expectations the industry would otherwise have placed on her.

The hallmark of her best performances is that she seems completely free to look her age, to not look beautiful and even to occasionally look awful – here she plays a middle aged wife and mother worried sick for her family and wondering if she's losing her mind and she looks every inch of it.

It's kind of a ghost story but kind of not as Annie (Colette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and her frankly weird kids Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) try to get on with their lives after putting Annie's estranged mother to rest.

But as soon as the old lady is buried, weird stuff starts happening – a lot of it. Charlie, a quiet and still child to the extent she seems to have a mild mental illness, makes a repeated clucking noise with her tongue that will be used later to very scary effect. Annie seems to see the outline of her mother staring at her from across a darkened room. A pigeon flies into a classroom window and kills itself, Charlie going outside to cut off its head with scissors in what will turn out to be a grisly premonition.

Telling her husband she goes to the movies at night, Annie is actually going to grief counselling, and she connects with another woman, Joan (Anne Dowd), who ends up convincing Annie she can talk to dead members of her family at a seance. Later on, Annie wakes up from an apparent sleepwalk over Peter's bed with a can of lighter fluid in one hand and a match in the other. A glittering glint of light like a reflection follows characters everywhere, seeming to be a spirit. Joan has a connection to Annie's family that will turn out to be pivotal.

The upside of all those motifs and occurrences is that they weave a grand mystery you're really interested to see revealed. The plot turn that moves things into the second act – involving Peter, Charlie and a road accident – is as unexpected and horrifying as anything I've seen in a movie in the last year.

The downside, wich you might have guessed by the number of times I used the word 'seeming' in the above description, is that altough writer/director Ari Aster's story has a beginning, middle and end, too little of what leads up to it forms a narrative whole.

It probably all made perfect sense to him, and the climax that reveals whether there's really something supernatural going on certainly allows for all the creepy happenings, but it doesn't really explain them. With every scene seeming to introduce a new idea or element to the story, the movie doesn't connect them obviously enough.

It might also be that Aster was more interested in the successful use of what all the acclaim was about – the tone of well-constructed scares – than in building a cohesive story. It means that to a large extent you'll only get out of Hereditary what you go into it wanting.

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