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Hereditary ***1/2

This is what a great, twisted horror movie looks like. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

“Hereditary” is notably uninterested in horror movie conventions, and is much better because of it. It’s R-rated, yet never gory. It has adult themes, and super-freaky supernatural stuff happens, but never in a predictable way. Best of all, there are zero jump scares. None. The time-honored, woefully overdone trope of surprising an audience with sudden peril is pleasantly absent here, as is the only thing worse than a jump scare: a fake jump scare. If nothing else, this film is to be appreciated for not being cheap and easy.

To be sure, writer/director Ari Aster isn’t reinventing the genre, but he does demonstrate impressive poise in his feature film directorial debut. As it opens we learn of the death of 78 year-old Ellen. Her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), grandchildren Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Millie Shapiro), and Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) prepare for Ellen’s funeral. As can happen, the family seems perfunctorily sad she’s gone, and in fact Annie comments that she thinks she should feel worse. No one cries. Ellen was liked, but was also a cold person with whom only Charlie felt close, and at 13 and likely dealing with her first death, Charlie probably doesn’t know what or how to feel. Annie does ultimately end up in grief counseling, where she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), who ironically once purchased a welcome mat from Ellen. Small world indeed.

What’s catching is how the story evolves from a family melodrama to disturbing horror over the course of its 127 minutes. Initially we feel for the characters, sympathize with their pain, and understand that the type of loss they experience could happen to anyone. And then…odd things happen, things that you don’t expect, all of which befit the narrative and work dramatically. For example, it’s not entirely unusual for a bird to fly into a window and die. It is unusual, however, for Charlie to then cut the bird’s head off and use it as part of her figurines. Taking after her mother in way, we presume, because Annie’s job is to create miniature models.

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Be sure to pay close attention to the little details, like food allergies and what faces you see at the funeral in the beginning. You’ll be surprised at how these seemingly insignificant elements pay off later. You’ll also be terrified and engaged as the plot unfolds, to the point that you’ll leave with the desire to see the film again to ensure you didn’t miss any of its nuances.

In fact, leaving the theater I was struck with the immediate impression that repeat viewings will yield greater understanding and appreciation of the layers Aster has so skillfully crafted here. Ordinarily horror movies are one-and-done sensations, rarely inspiring another thought, let alone another look. “Hereditary” is anything but ordinary in the best ways possible.

Did you know?
In April, families attending the PG-rated “Peter Rabbit” in an Australian theater were horrified when the trailer for “Hereditary” accidentally started to play, leading to a “small panic” that prompted parents to cover their children’s eyes and ears.

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