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I want to state this clearly for the record: After I am dead, please do not attempt to contact me. I don’t care what you try or how much money you’ve paid to whomever, I can absolutely guarantee that my immortal soul will not return any calls.

If you attempt to contact me anyway and you somehow get an answer of any kind, I swear on my grave that isn’t me. YOU ARE IN DANGER. FUCKING RUN.

Hereditary opens with the death of old Ellen Leigh, as her surviving family learns to cope with her passing. Unfortunately, the recently departed was into all sorts of secret stuff that nobody knew about, and it all comes back to make the family suffer as the plot unfolds. It makes an especially huge impact on Ellen’s granddaughter, the eccentric teenager Charlie (Milly Shapiro, here making her film debut after an impressive Broadway career).

Right off the bat, we have mysterious occult stuff, convoluted rituals, and a creepy girl. As the plot unfolds, we get freaky apparitions that may or may not be real, demonic possession, inanimate objects moving on their own… break the movie down into its constituent parts and there’s really nothing new here. The plot itself isn’t all that engaging, and every new predictable reveal only serves to open up so many plot holes. It certainly doesn’t help that the characters aren’t terribly likeable, moving the plot forward in ways that actively make them less sympathetic. Seriously, there are one or two pivotal moments that are so completely the stupid characters’ fault, I didn’t even care what happened to them afterward.

Then again, that can work in the movie’s favor at times. Easily the best example is Peter, the son of the family. He’s played by Alex Wolff, whose face is so eminently punchable that I didn’t remotely mind watching him suffer. Wolff’s backpfeifengesicht is easily his strongest feature as an actor, though this movie showcases a new one: his ability to look directly into the camera for minutes at a time without blinking. Seriously, it’s impressive and uncanny and creepy how he can do that.

Which brings me to the main strength of this movie, and why it’s the prestige horror movie du jour: Absolutely everything about this movie is CREEPY AS FUCK. Seriously, where do I even begin?

Toni Collette plays our protagonist (Annie, the family matriarch), who builds miniature houses for a living. Because dolls are inherently unnerving and the filmmakers know that, they make it a prominent motif from literally the very first shot to the very last. We also get all sorts of other creative motifs, from decapitation to insects. You may think it sounds unsettling to see a swarm of insects, a headless corpse, or a swarm of insects on a headless corpse, but those recurring images are presented in soul-shaking ways all throughout the picture and they never seem to get less effective.

Every single shot in this movie is compelling to the eye, and every last cut is placed for maximum impact. I was especially fond of how the filmmakers used reflective surfaces — from mirrors to corneas — and red lights. There was one particularly notable shot in which red lights are reflected off a character’s eyes, and it looked perfectly eerie.

But my personal favorite sequence happened immediately after the first death. Without getting too deep into spoilers, it’s like the whole movie came to a dead stop. There was no score, no dialogue, no movement, and barely any cuts. In any other movie, this would mean the pacing has stopped dead in its tracks. But here, every passing second of inaction only ramped up the tension. By the end, I was begging for something to break, if only so we could finally see what the characters were going to do and what would happen next. Sure enough, the payoff is appropriately massive and prolonged when it finally happens.

And pretty much the whole movie is like that from then onwards.

Another huge part of the visuals is in the set design. So many fantastic shots are made possible because the camera could pass through floors and walls, making sure we can follow the characters from one room to another (in keeping with the dollhouse motif). There’s another beautiful shot in which the camera follows a coffin and descends straight down into the ground. I don’t know if that was set design, visual effects, or whatever, but it looked beautiful.

Then we have the score and the sound design. The score is your typical modern horror fare, heavy on shrieking unorthodox instrumentation when it isn’t cutting out completely just before a scare. The sound design is far more novel, particularly with regard to Charlie. The girl has quite a few sound-related tics and habits, all of which are used with terrifying effect as the film unfolds. To wit: You know that sound you make by clicking your tongue? I didn’t think that could ever be scary, and now it could possibly be enough to make me bolt awake screaming in a cold sweat.

Oh, and did I mention the swarms of insects? The sound design does a lot to help with that motif as well.

Then of course we have the cast. I give Alex Wolff (and his brother, for that matter) a lot of shit, but so much of the movie depends on his capacity for punishment and he takes it well. I was also very impressed with Milly Shapiro — given her stellar performance here, her fantastic Broadway bona fides, and her young age, I look forward to seeing what her long and prosperous career will look like. Also in the supporting cast, Ann Dowd deserves credit as a badly needed and deeply sympathetic comic relief character, at least until her character goes batshit crazy with the rest of the movie.

Gabriel Byrne has a prominent supporting role, but he’s wasted through half the film. As the husband to Toni Collette’s character, Byrne plays the rational skeptic in contrast to all the supernatural insanity surrounding him. It’s a thankless role, but an important one and Byrne does an admirable job of it. Trouble is, the supernatural stuff doesn’t come until halfway through the movie and he’s basically useless until then.

No, this is absolutely Toni Collette’s show from start to finish. Until the demons finally come out to play, this movie is at its most effective when it comments on grieving and loss. That’s a lot of meaty stuff for an actor, and Collette makes a meal of it. She is on fire (sometimes literally) with this one, bringing a performance that’s compelling, horrifying, and deeply sympathetic all at once. And that’s nothing short of astonishing when you consider how many times the camera goes close-up on her face and how far down the rabbit hole this character has to go.

Hereditary is definitely one of those times in which stellar presentation saves a subpar story. The premise is threadbare, the characters are stock, and the hole-ridden plot is so dependent on arbitrary nonsense that I couldn’t care less about how any of this fugazi occultism is supposed to work. Granted, the material about loss and grief is powerful, but that’s pretty much entirely due to Toni Collette’s performance and it gets tossed right out the window after the halfway point.

On the other hand, none of that mattered because the filmmaking is just that damned good. The visuals, the sound design, the performances, the recurring motifs… all of that was so creative and deeply unsettling that I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I wanted to keep watching just so I could see what the filmmakers would throw at me next. There’s no doubt that this movie is well-performed and superbly crafted, but the movie’s best aspects are almost all superficial and even a cursory examination of the story is enough to show how hollow it is.

It’s a movie worth watching, but not enough to justify the hype. Definitely one for home video.

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