A candlelit seance. A spooky child. A house filled with dark memories and buried secrets. It is possible to describe some of the characters, places and events in "Hereditary" while conveying nothing of its steady accumulation of dread, its grim, implacable mood or its lasting power to disturb.
The sensationally gifted writer-director Ari Aster may tip his hat to the horror canon ("Rosemary's Baby," "The Shining"), but he has no interest in making a coy, winking exercise in horror pastiche. With breathtaking deliberation and quiet, unshowy mastery, he spins a devastating portrait of an American family in sudden, inexplicable decline.
There is in fact an explanation, and "Hereditary" is unnerving in part because it makes no attempt to hide it. In scene after meticulously controlled scene, the movie tells us exactly what's going on — slowly, to be sure, and in accordance with an intricate narrative pattern that reveals itself only in the breath-quickening final moments.
But the truth emerges in the shadows and silences, in insinuating details of camera placement and production design, and most of all in the shattering gaze of Toni Collette, whose performance escalates brilliantly from anxiety to misery to frenzied, near-ecstatic terror.
This is Collette's first major return to horror since her Oscar-nominated work in "The Sixth Sense" (1999), in which she played the skeptical, supportive parent of a boy who sees dead people. The burdens of motherhood weigh even more heavily on Collette's Annie Graham, an artist who lives with her family in a small woodside town (the movie was filmed in Utah). As the story begins, Annie is preparing to bury her 78-year-old mother, Ellen — a loss but not necessarily a tragedy, to judge by the many long years of estrangement to which Annie sometimes alludes.
"My mother was a very difficult woman to read," Annie says in her eulogy, a speech peppered with other words like "secretive" and "stubborn." In the days that follow, she tries to move on and focus on her work and family.
In a way, her work is her family: Annie builds and paints intricate dioramas, dollhouse versions of her own woodside home, each one reconstructing a significant moment from her past — a device that allows Aster to compress some crucial backstory into a few elegant, motionless tableaux.
Annie has two teenage children with her supportive if somewhat recessive husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne). Their teenage son, Peter (a superb Alex Wolff), is like a lot of other boys his age — bored, moody and interested mainly in girls and pot. He's better adjusted, though, than his younger sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro of Broadway's "Matilda"), an odd, withdrawn 13-year-old who had an unusually close bond with her grandmother.
The influence can hardly have been a healthy one, if Charlie's hobbies — constructing dolls from household objects, making disturbing sketches in her notebook — are any indication. A sinister presence seems to follow her as she skulks about in an orange sweatshirt that, along with her diminutive stature, reminded me of nothing so much as the red-hooded killer from Nicolas Roeg's 1973 classic, "Don't Look Now," another obvious touchstone.
But if Charlie seems connected to a long tradition of pint-size horror-movie demons — every shot of her brings its own reflexive shudder — she is also a troublingly sympathetic one, and her prescribed role in the story defies every cliché and expectation.
The mystery at the heart of Aster's screenplay concerns the specific nature of Ellen's legacy; this is, among other things, a movie about the good and the bad (but mostly the bad) that we pass on to those we love.
As Annie sifts through her mother's personal belongings, a few books on spiritualism among them, she finds that Ellen has left her a handwritten note, which includes the hardly reassuring sentence, "Our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards." It would be grossly unfair to reveal exactly what she means by "sacrifice." Suffice to say that the Graham family is suddenly plunged into a hellish ordeal, astonishing in its vividness and uncompromising in its cruelty.
Aster, who directed several acclaimed short films before making "Hereditary," has said that he found inspiration for the film in his family's own prolonged but very different experience of suffering. Personal history alone hardly explains the artistry of what we see and hear on-screen, but it might explain how acutely Aster nails the feel of a waking nightmare, in not just its anguish but also its persistent, day-after-day banality.
The pressures of work and domesticity do not cease in the wake of tragedy, and neither do the vague irritations of adolescence or the long-held resentments of middle age. In one of the movie's most galvanizing scenes, Annie lashes out at Peter, giving voice to demons that have been suppressed for too long. It's a stunning showcase for Collette, but Wolff is no less heartbreaking in the way he seems to absorb every verbal blow, internalizing the pain as only an alienated teenager can.
That emotional and psychological integrity remains even when the story begins to introduce elements of the occult, or allows a hair-raising dream sequence to rupture the narrative. At one point Annie is befriended by a concerned older woman, Joan, who's clearly bad news; the fact that she's played by the great Ann Dowd may tingle the spines of any "Handmaid's Tale" fans in the audience. But there are none of the gratuitous jump scares or pointless fakeouts that have reduced mainstream horror cinema to so much self-defeating gimickry.
What makes "Hereditary" so scary is that, for the most part, the Grahams' unseen tormenters don't seem all that interested in scaring anyone. Our terror is less the central purpose than the byproduct of a ruthlessly specific agenda. As Annie and her loved ones move through their personal stages of grief, you get the sense that they are not just enacting the ordinary rituals of the bereaved, but that they are being moved into position, like chess pieces, by forces beyond their comprehension or control.
This conceit, and the formal rigor and psychological acuity with which the movie sustains it, can make "Hereditary" play like an American answer to the icy chamber dramas of Michael Haneke, or perhaps an Ingmar Bergman remake of "Poltergeist." The cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, underscores this reading visually by often framing the actors at a chilly remove, reducing them to the scale of Annie's dolls. Those dioramas, which once served as a therapeutic outlet, become a striking metaphor for a family's entrapment.
But if the characters are hopelessly constricted, the actors are liberated, and they fill every precise frame with insistent, defiant life — none more so than Collette, who at times seems to be fighting not just the forces of evil but also the cold, clammy grip of the movie in which she finds herself. She plays Annie like an instrument going slowly out of tune, chattering away with mounting desperation, exposing more and more nerve endings in every scene. I haven't seen a better performance this year, or a more mesmerizing reminder that the devil really is in the details.
Rating: R, for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: In general release