By Anthony Lane
The scariest thing in “Hereditary,” a movie well supplied with fear, is a noise. It’s the one that you make by flicking your tongue down from the roof of your mouth: klokk. Most of us rarely do this, unless moved by a desire to mimic the hoofbeats of a horse, but Charlie Graham (Milly Shapiro), a non-smiling girl of thirteen, klokks with unnerving frequency. It’s her signature sound, like the bing! emitted by the annoying guy in “Groundhog Day,” and her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), who’s a few years older than Charlie, hears a klokk in the corner of his bedroom, after dark, even when she’s not there.
Or, at any rate, he thinks he does. Most of the folks in the film, which is written and directed by Ari Aster, don’t quite know what to believe, or how much they should trust their eyes and ears. The children’s mother, Annie (Toni Collette), can’t tell if her own emotions are correct. Her mother just passed away, and Annie is bemused, or half-ashamed, at feeling insufficiently sad. But then, as she admits at the funeral, her mother was a secretive person, possessed of “private rituals.” That phrase echoes around the story like a whisper in a cave. Scene after scene bears the hermetic rigor of a rite, one that outsiders—or even other members of the household—may struggle to understand.
This sense of enclosure, we come to realize, is a female preserve. Annie’s husband, Steve, may have troubles, too (weighty ones, given that he’s played by the ever-sombre Gabriel Byrne), but, in his case, the movie chooses not to pry. We never find out what he does for a living. Though Peter and his schoolmates observe their own customs, they do so gregariously, ganging together to smoke a bowl. About Charlie and Annie, on the other hand, we learn perhaps more than we would wish. Charlie solemnly scissors the head from a dead pigeon—Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” (2009) contains a similar avian outrage—and combines odds and ends to make nightmare-tinted toys. This charming gift of constructive improvisation is clearly inherited from Annie, who designs doll’s houses, replicating her own experience in miniature. One room, say, features a tiny version of her late mother, dressed in a white gown. Why, she could almost be alive!
Annie’s other hobbies include majestic monologues, in which she lays bare the roots of her grievances and griefs. We are no longer used to long speeches in American cinema, but, even when in fashion, their purpose was to rouse or to denounce—think of George C. Scott at the start of “Patton” (1970), or Al Pacino’s belligerent bellowing in “Scent of a Woman” (1992) and “Any Given Sunday” (1999). Annie, by contrast, sounds more like a fugitive from a Bergman film. As she recites her woes in a group-therapy session for the bereaved, or raves with indignation in front of Peter and Steve, tumbling over her words (“All I get back is that fucking face on your face”), the effect verges on the comic, and some of “Hereditary” can best be borne, or relieved, by means of a jittery laugh. The cruellest joke is delivered by the final credits, in which Judy Collins sings Joni Mitchell’s breezy “Both Sides Now”: “So many things I would have done / But clouds got in my way.” Indeed.
One result of the therapy is that Annie meets Joan (Ann Dowd), a fellow-mourner, warm and courteous, who teaches her how to contact the dearly departed. Joan contends that summoning the spirits of others is the most effective way to raise your own, and the séance, at her place, is a notably low-rent affair, its tools consisting of a table, a candle, a chalkboard, and a glass. When Annie goes home and proposes the same routine, Steve scoffs and sighs but, to placate her, goes along with it. Bad idea. Henceforth, the movie shifts from the disquieting to the freaky and, by the end, the absolutely nuts. Did I really see one figure self-decapitate with a length of wire, sawing briskly back and forth as if through a log? And another, reduced to carbonized flesh, apparently kneeling in prayer? Maybe I dreamed the whole thing, in the churning wake of the screening. One thing’s for sure: requesting the presence of the dead is a risky business. You cannot predict which of them will show up, and in what mood. The road to Hell is paved with invitations.
Advance word on “Hereditary” told, or gabbled, of something more arresting than a regular fright night. And it’s true that, if you enjoy a little spooking on the weekend, cheerfully spilling your Raisinets in front of a skittish franchise (“Annabelle,” “The Conjuring,” “Insidious,” and so on), Aster’s movie will come across either as a challenging diversion from the norm or as an indulgence too far. It runs more than two hours, and whether it will conquer the multiplex as well as the art house remains to be seen. Although “The Witch,” an independent horror flick with a squirm power akin to that of “Hereditary,” brought in a handsome twenty-five million dollars when released in early 2016, a clunker like “The Conjuring 2,” which appeared a few months later, still earned four times as much nationwide.
Not that “Hereditary” is disloyal to the genre. No film in which a son hands the phone to his father and remarks, “Dad, it’s the cemetery,” can be said to break entirely fresh ground. The Grahams could easily improve their gloomy mood by investing in some hundred-watt light bulbs, but no: this is horror, and therefore the dinner table must be illuminated as dimly as a crypt. We get a blood-red glow, emanating from the children’s tree house, and borrowed from the eyelike windows in “The Amityville Horror” (1979). We get faces crawling with ants—an itchy spectacle, but no spookier than the bees that swarmed out of someone’s mouth in “Candyman” (1992). There’s also a sequence, early on, in which Annie, sorting through her mother’s stuff, picks up a volume entitled “Guide to Spiritualism,” which may not give the game away but certainly advertises what sort of game we can expect. Is this necessary? Were guests obliged to study “A Handbook to the Breeding of Large Dogs” before going to stay with the Baskervilles?
One thing that does set “Hereditary” apart is the force of its cast. Milly Shapiro, despite having played the buoyant heroine of “Matilda,” on Broadway, forsakes any hint of joy in her depiction of Charlie, who strikes me as unreachably inward. Confronting her grandmother’s open casket, she doesn’t weep, or shy away, but bites into a candy bar with a loud, heretical snap. Meanwhile, in regard to Annie, it was gutsy of Toni Collette to take the part, given that she’s had less than twenty years to recover from “The Sixth Sense” (1999), and as the new film gets under way she looks stricken, like someone who has already weathered an ordeal. And yet, as in most of Collette’s performances, from “Muriel’s Wedding” (1994) onward, there’s a resilience, too, in those strong-boned features and that tough pragmatic gaze. She’s damned if she’s going to be a victim and nothing but.
Damned, unfortunately, is right. Aster means to petrify us, and he succeeds; I won’t forget the pale shape that lurks and scoots behind Peter, in the corner of the ceiling, like Spider-Man’s evil twin. And the expression on the poor lad’s face, at the climax of the tale, is one of genuine bewilderment, quivering with disbelief that his ordinary young life should have descended into the infernal. As for the music, I’d have to check with the composer, Colin Stetson, but it seems to be scored for violins, percussion, a humpback whale, and bats.
Here’s the thing, though. “Hereditary” is far more upsetting than it is frightening, and I would hesitate to recommend it to the readily traumatized. (In Australia, the trailer was reportedly screened by mistake before a showing of “Peter Rabbit.” Sleep well, children!) For viewers recuperating from a wounded childhood, or from a festering relationship, it could scrape too close to the bone. The movie haunts us even when it isn’t making us jump, so intently are the characters bedevilled by the spectres of their past. “I’m not to be blamed,” Annie says in therapy, as she describes her mother’s legacy, before adding, in despair, “I am blamed.”
Should you want to measure the psychological disturbance at work here, try comparing “Hereditary” with “A Quiet Place.” That recent hit, for all its masterly shocks, is at bottom a reassuring film, introducing people who are beset by an external menace but more or less able to pull through because, as a team, they’re roped together with enough love to fight back. “Hereditary” is more perplexing. It has the nerve to suggest that the social unit is, by definition, self-menacing, and that the home is no longer a sanctuary but a crumbling fortress, under siege from within. That is why there are no doctors in Aster’s film, and no detectives, either, urgently though both are required; nor does a man of God arrive, as he does in “The Exorcist” (1973), to lay the anguish to rest. Nothing, in short, can help Annie, Steve, and the kids, and they sure can’t help themselves, stationed as they are inside their delicate doll’s house of a world. There is no family curse in this remarkable movie. The family is the curse. Klokk.