‘Hereditary’ is innovative and unpredictable

  • Toni Collette in a scene from “Hereditary.” A24 via AP

For the Bulletin
Thursday, June 14, 2018

“Hereditary,” the feature debut by director Ari Aster, is attracting attention as an innovative, character-driven horror film. It makes us think about unimaginable loss and how angry we can be at people we love, before the plot meanders into a convoluted supernatural resolution. 

Still, the world that “Hereditary” conjures up lingers after the storyline fades, in large part because of 13-year-old Charlie, played by Milly Shapiro.

She’s not the main character; that is the frazzled, depressed mother, Annie, played by Toni Collette. A relatable, stand-in for the audience, Collette is authentic and funny and endearing — that is, before we consider whether she might be the one who’s truly evil. This being a horror movie, any one of the characters could be the wolf in sheep’s clothing, of course. Early scenes hint that it could be Charlie, the only family member who’s really saddened by the recent death of her grandmother. 

There’s a disconnect in the references to the dearly beloved in the grandmother’s standard-issue obituary with which the movie opens and the obvious lack of affection anyone but Charlie had for her. This awkward reality establishes the movie’s often wry tone while suggesting why the gnomish Charlie looks like she could kill somebody. She’s either a candidate for a new generation Damien, the Satanic child of the 1976 horror classic “The Omen,” or a grieving, angry teenager.

We meet the family as they get ready for the funeral, after the camera slowly zooms into a dollhouse, which turns into a real house somewhere in a mountainous western state. They seem like a pretty functional group: Annie; her husband, Steve, a psychiatrist played by a reserved Gabriel Byrne; and insouciant, high school-aged Peter, played by Alex Wolff. But Charlie shows up for the service in a grubby, oversized sweatshirt, makes disturbing clucking sounds and messily eats a chocolate bar, getting it all over her face. 

It’s outlandish and disturbing to watch, but it doesn’t faze her family. Either they don’t see the signs that the devil’s among them, or they’ve just learned to pick their battles. One of the most gratifying elements of “Hereditary” is that, in some ways, the characters are so well behaved. 

Annie, an artist, is on deadline to finish making a series of dollhouses depicting emotional family scenes. There’s a touch of Jack Torrance, the crazed writer from “The Shining,” in her self-imposed isolation and anxiety about  getting her work done in time. But the feedback she gets from the gallery that’s hosting her show is full of support, and with the steady-going Steve, she seems to be striking a good enough balance when it comes to parenting.

On impulse, though, she insists that Peter take Charlie to a party at a high school friend’s house. The  funniest part of the movie, it also seems like a recipe for disaster, and, it is, but not in the way we would expect. 

Instead of kicking up a scene, Peter dutifully, if very reluctantly, agrees to bring his little sister to the party, and she sullenly tags along. She occupies herself with her own creative outlet, making grotesque but intriguing dolls out of disparate materials, including discarded tools and a severed bird’s head. Things go horribly south soon enough, but it’s never predictable. No one gets bullied, and the high school kids don’t trash the house. 

Fans of old-school horror touches won’t be disappointed with the way “Hereditary” unfolds, but it’s the scenes of normalcy — a brother absent-mindedly looking out for his sister, high school teachers discussing meaningful ideas in class, teenagers treating each other with decency — that linger. We can identify with these characters, and when things go so very badly, we can feel their pain. 

“Hereditary,” directed by Ari Aster and starring Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff, is playing at Cinemark in Hadley. Rated R.