Sundance London 2018: Unnervingly oppressive horror featuring an astonishing Toni Collette
Welcoming us into the bosom of a truly nightmarish clan, Hereditary's onslaught of misfortune and monstrousness puts even the most dysfunctional broods in perspective. Writer-director Ari Aster's distinguished, Exorcist-evoking debut is an unnervingly oppressive genre piece in which the family bond acts as a suffocating seal
Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist working through her problems by crafting a hyper-realistic dollhouse of horrors, depicting the various traumas from her life – a project which has reason to be added to as the film unfolds.
Her mother, Ellen, is buried at the outset, leaving Annie to deliver a less than effusive eulogy. And yet her presence lingers: in the shape of a half-seen apparition, in disturbing dollhouse figurines, and in the disconcerting behaviour of Annie's 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who, we're told, shared a special bond with her grandmother. Annie struggles to process and articulate her grief, but when the family suffer an even more devastating tragedy her anguish is turned all the way up to eleven.
Although it ticks a surprising amount of tropes off the genre checklist (séances, night-time visitors, creepy kids, spooky rituals), Hereditary spends a great deal of time delving into the twisted family dynamic and inner workings of these tortured souls, with particular focus on Annie and her son Peter (Alex Wolff). By mapping their pain, Aster explores the overbearing older generation's fear of being usurped, the terrible burden of maternal guilt, anxieties relating to genetic predispositions and illnesses, and the gender imbalance within the home.
As Annie frets, blames herself, investigates odd goings-on and tries to hold her family and sanity together, Gabriel Byrne plays the classic feckless horror movie husband. Outwardly reassuring, he's ultimately unhelpful and dismissive, watching his family disintegrate without lifting a finger.
Though firmly rooted in the supernatural, Hereditary specialises in chills rather than hell-for-leather horror, but boasts a score that bellows, creaks and moans and a fair few frights – particularly as we make our way to the amped-up ending which, in its outlandishness, will delight some and disgruntle others. Collette is fallible, affecting and ferocious in one of her best roles for years. As her formerly mild-mannered mother swings between protector and aggressor, it's a film that unearths and lives out our very worst fears.
Screening as part of Sundance London 2018. General release from Fri 15 Jun.