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Hereditary (Sundance Review)

Hereditary (Sundance Review)
01.26.2018by: Chris Bumbray
9 10

PLOT: A seemingly happy family is un-moored by a tragedy, but dark forces are at work that put their very souls in jeopardy.

REVIEW: Watching HEREDITARY will no doubt be akin to a religious awakening for some genre fans. The latest in a string of nearly perfect art-house horror entries for studio A24, this is comparable to the kind of A-level horror films made forty years ago, with it having a lot more in common with ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING than it does to most contemporary genre releases. While the low-key, cerebral scares may not attract fans of more conventional scares, a wide range of moviegoers will no doubt consider HEREDITARY to be among the best modern horror movies, very much in the mold of elevated outings like THE BABADOOK, IT FOLLOWS and THE WITCH.

Reviewing a movie like this is more than a little difficult, as it depends on going-in relatively fresh and free from spoilers. I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the 10 am Sundance press screening, and that’s the best way to see it. For at least half of the two-hour running time, nothing particularly scary happens. We follow the Graham family, led by nice guy dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and more high-strung mom Annie (Toni Collette) as they prepare for her mother’s funeral - a woman who was apparently disturbed and thought she was some kind of medium.

Their kids, teenage stoner Peter (Alex Wolff) and his quiet sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are differently affected. Peter wants to get on with his life, but Charlie, who the grand-mother was obsessed with, seems badly shaken. Meanwhile, Annie tries to deal with her grief through group therapy, where she meets the helpful Joan (Ann Dowd), and that's when things start to go a little haywire.

I don’t want to give away any of the twists and turns, which hopefully won’t get spoiled by the trailer, but suffice to say that while the scares don’t kick in until later in the film, once they do they’re unrelenting. Writer-director Ari Aster avoids any cheap scares, with almost all the horror being psychological, and for much of it, you never really know for sure if the Graham family is dealing with something real, or just having an insane reaction to trauma.

The acting is top-shelf all around, with Toni Collette so good that if the academy recognized genre, she’d be due some best actress consideration. She’s matched by Byrne, in a lower-key role as the more laid-back parent. The kids are outstanding, with Wolff continuing to impress following his stand-out turn in PATRIOTS DAY, with him doing some really unnerving physical acting and contorting. Perhaps the standout though is young Milly Shapiro as Charlie, who has an otherworldly quality that carries the film through its slow-burn first act.

Now, I realize this review is a tad ambiguous as to what kind of threat HEREDITARY actually features, but you’ve got to go into it cold to get the most out of it. Suffice to say, when the scares kick-in, this is a scary, top-shelf horror outing that makes the slow build-up pay off in a big way. It remains to be seen whether or not this will be embraced or be another arthouse horror flick with a perfect Rotten Tomatoes rating and an F Cinemascore, but I have faith in audiences. This may wind up being niche, but it could just as easily become a huge word-of-mouth hit, which is a fate it's well worthy of.

Extra Tidbit: A24 will release Hereditary later this year.

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