Okay, I know that’s the laziest cliché a critic can use to describe a horror movie, so let me atone for it by giving more detail. In one of the The Exorcist’s most infamous scenes, the demon Pazuzu forces little Regan (Linda Blair) to spew profanity at her mother Chris (Ellen Burnstyn) and to mutilate herself, climaxing with a shot of her head turning 180 degrees. During the head turn, director William Friedken cuts twice to show Chris moaning in terror, but he largely keeps attention on the gross and disturbing thing happening with Reagan’s head.
An equally upsetting bit of child head endangerment occurs in Hereditary. But while writer/director Ari Aster, making his feature film debut, certainly lets us see plenty of awfulness, his camera lingers most on the face of teenager Peter Graham (Alex Wolff), unable to process the events we just witnessed.
This preference for people over monsters recalls comedies like Edgar Wright’s “romantic comedy with zombies” Shaun of the Dead or the still-underrated Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. But don’t be fooled by that comparison, or any nonsense about “elevated horror.” Hereditary is a horror movie, through and through, complete with ghosts and possessions and lots of creepy hallways. It’s just a horror movie that locates terror in the faces of the victims, not in the faces of the monsters.
And it’s to Aster’s further credit that he’s chosen some pretty outstanding faces. Chief among them is Toni Collette as Annie Graham, an artist specializing in autobiographical dioramas, trying to get life back to normal after the death of her emotionally abusive mother. The death weighs heaviest on Annie’s preteen daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro), who formed a close bond with her grandmother and starts manifesting some disturbing behavior. Annie’s exceedingly, almost unbelievably, patient husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tries to hold things together, but Annie’s inability to cope only further exacerbates her chilly relationship with older son Peter.
Byrne and Shapiro play their characters with a sometimes unnerving calm, as does a very welcome Ann Dowd, who shows up as a too sympathetic member of Annie’s support group. These low-key performances give room for the other actors to tear up the screen, and tear it up they do. In nearly any other movie, Wolff would earn all the attention for his ability to play a normal teenager forced trying to be the mature adult for his unraveling mom and then reduced to a quivering little boy the terrors he experiences.
But somehow, Toni Collette’s portrayal of Annie pulls our attention away from Wolff’s fantastic work. Collette’s been great since her early roles in Muriel’s Wedding and The Sixth Sense, but she truly outdoes herself here. Giving a performance reminiscent of Gena Rowlands at her most unhinged, Collette twists her face and body into all manner of unnatural shapes as a woman trying desperately to arrange her family like she arranges her sculptures, even as internal tensions manifest as external phantasms.
These performances help sell the movie’s “show the family falling apart, don’t tell us the family’s falling apart” ethos, and Aster wisely gives enough space by waiving aside the mystery behind it all. Too many horror movies send characters off on quests to learn why the ghost is angry or to find a talisman that will stop it all – think about how much less scary Gore Verbinski’s The Ring or even Peter Medak’s otherwise great The Changeling become when they turn into Matlock mysteries. Aster devotes two scenes to explaining the reason for the hauntings, and they are both pretty silly. But thankfully, they are both pretty quick.
As those expository scenes demonstrate, Aster’s learned a lesson that so many other horror filmmakers miss: we care about the scary stuff, not about the reason it’s happening. But Heredity’s flipped focus teaches movie makers a new lesson: showing us the scary stuff makes it scary, but showing us the people affected by the scary stuff makes it absolutely terrifying.