When a horror movie is touted as being “the scariest film since The Exorcist, it’s best approached with equal parts anticipation and scepticism.

While William Friedkin’s classic will forever remain the pinnacle of horror cinema, the good news is that Hereditary, the feature debut of writer-director Ari Aster, does live up to the hype in terms of tapping into the sustained sinister mood that permeated Friedkin’s film, as the diabolical insinuates itself into the lives of a family reeling in the wake of tragedy.

Hereditary opens with a funeral, and the atmosphere remains stiflingly funereal. Annie (Toni Collette) has just lost her estranged mother and is struggling to come to terms with her feelings when disaster strikes once again. After attending a grief support group, she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), who raises the notion of contacting the other side through a seance – providing a very convincing demonstration that becomes the catalyst for the nightmare to follow…

Hereditary builds its supernatural horrors on the foundations of very real ones – grief, anguish, guilt and mental illness.

Having already put the family – and the audience – through the emotional wringer in an intense and measured set-up, the intrusion of the occult is the salt in a very raw wound. And the combined effect is deeply unsettling.   

The film also succeeds on the strength of its cast. Toni Colette has never been better as a mother teetering on the brink of madness; Gabriel Byrne is the father bewildered by what he cannot understand; Alex Wolff is suitably haunted as the son touched by the shadow of evil; and Milly Shapiro is guaranteed to unnerve as the sullen daughter who creates strange effigies, and was always her late grandma’s favourite. And of course if you’ve seen The Leftovers and The Handmaid’s Tale, Ann Dowd’s presence alone is cause for concern.      

There are shades of The Babadook, The Witch, Rosemary’s Baby and The Sentinel, but Hereditary‘s greatest strength (along with Collette’s tour de force) is that it takes familiar genre tropes – a creepy child, a haunted house, a family’s gradual descent into hell – and makes them its own, subverting expectations and conjuring escalating dread through fixed shots, slow pans and emotional intensity, rather than jump scares and cheap shocks.

Here’s hoping contemporary horror films that follow inherit the restraint, style and subcutaneous resonance that Aster masterfully delivers in this superb debut.

star 4 and a halfIn cinemas: June 7, 2018
Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd
Directed by: Ari Aster