Best thing you’ll see since Poltergeist: Hereditary

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Whenever a teacher is giving a lecture in a movie, you can bet the subject of the lecture is relevant to the movie. No writer or director worth his salt is going to have someone droning on in front of a class about something irrelevant. Here is the opportunity to invoke something erudite from literature or physics or biology. But during the couple of classroom scenes in Hereditary, I didn’t quite understand what writer/director Ari Aster was getting at with specific references to Greek tragedies. He had yet to show me what he was doing.

What’s so compelling about Hereditary is how it veers from the familiar road it’s hurtling along and takes some unexpected and uncomfortable detours. You might think from the title it’s some sort of metaphor about what we get from our parents. You might think from the trailer that you’re going to be seeing a crowd-pleasing screamfest. You might think from the opening scenes that you’re watching a garden variety ghost story. All of these things are accurate to a certain extent. But none of them is the sum of Hereditary.

Aster knows how to play coy about whether there’s anything supernatural going on. Is this the effect of grief? Mental illness? An unreliable narrator? He knows when to imply things and when to reveal them. His instincts about how far to go are spot-on, as he demonstrates with supreme confidence in the final 10 minutes. He understands tension without resorting to jump scares for cheap release. More importantly, he understands dread. Hereditary might be too effective. It’s one of those movies I’m going to have to see again, because I watched a fair amount of it between my fingers.

Aster is yet another one of these astonishingly good first-time directors whose name belongs alongside Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk), David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night), Julia Ducournau (Raw), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), and Robert Eggars (The Witch). Especially Robert Eggers. People who complain that Hollywood is all sequels, franchises, and reboots aren’t watching horror movies. And even then, people who complain horror is all Blumhouse crap aren’t paying attention. It speaks volumes that these people are getting the budget, cast, distribution, and marketing to make the genre a showcase for creative talent and relevance. These people are making horror important.

Toni Collette deserves a lot of credit for Hereditary, because she doesn’t just act in it. The movie probably wouldn’t have happened without her support as one of its producers. But in her performance as the mother of a bereaved family, she also doesn’t just act. She unleashes something. There’s a frighteningly feral quality to her performance, much like her role in the overlooked Glassland. But whereas Glassland harnessed that feral quality to tell a story about addiction, Hereditary uses it to channel a particularly cruel story about subverted maternal instincts. Alex Wolff as her tortured doe-eyed son is a poignant foil to Collette’s furor. Wolff brought a disarming humanity to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Patriot Day, Peter Berg’s terrorism procedural (with Mark Wahlberg inexplicably tagging along). That same vulnerability is the key to Wolff’s performance here, where he plays another character hopelessly swept up in and swallowed by something terrible.

Regardless of its commercial success — the movie will do well given strong word of mouth and distributor A24’s business acumen — I predict Hereditary will be this decade’s Poltergeist. The comparisons are unavoidable. The daughter in Poltergeist is abducted by jealous spirits, the son is terrorized by his nightmares breaking into the real world, and the mother and father have to test the strength of their family bond to set it all right again. A kindly old medium guides them through their journey. There are counterparts to all these characters in Hereditary. But their roles, their situations, their reactions, and their fates are very different.

But more to the point, there’s a zeitgeist about Hereditary that reminds me of Poltergeist. Poltergeist was about mischief and thrills and safe happy endings. It was made from the stuff of the 80s. Back to the Future, benevolent extraterrestrials, and anodyne network TV. The internet coming along to unite us all. Clinton’s “aw shucks” idealism, while Rush Limbaugh was just a blowhard on AM radio. Terrorism happened to other countries and none of them needed invading. This was the world that embraced Poltergeist’s colorful suburban adventure as state-of-the-art horror. Mom and dad and three beautiful healthy kids, shaken but unscathed and stronger for it. Mom even gets a cool hairdo out of the ordeal.

But Hereditary is malice and hopelessness. It belongs to a time when Marvel superheroes dissolve in an existential apocalypse. Beloved characters from Star Wars killed and dying. An avuncular chemistry teacher turned cold-blooded murderer. Your co-workers who wouldn’t dream of reading a fantasy novel shocked by the Red Wedding and Sophie in the barn. Social media as a firehouse of hatred and bigotry, emboldened by the craven tribalism of a broken political party. Mass shootings effectively backed by a powerful lobbying group. A country run by thugs pulling strings around the world, invading its neighbors, shooting down passenger planes, subverting sovereign nations, all but unchecked. ISIS burning people alive and beheading them. Hereditary hums with a subsonic sickening malevolence, otherworldly but resonant. This is what horror is all about. A mirror in which, tragically, we see the worst of all possible worlds.

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