The family in “Hereditary,” a sensationally scary debut feature by Ari Aster, is unhappy in ways that Tolstoy could never have dreamed of. Do the mysterious woes of this nuclear group flow from nature, nurture or neither? I wouldn’t tell you even if I were dead certain, and it doesn’t matter all that much by the climax, which would be over the top if much of the film weren’t flying at the same altitude. What I will say is that a meta-mystery lurks here—how it is that this horror flick can be so shocking and dismaying, so genuinely upsetting in spasms and spurts, yet at the same time so madly entertaining.
One answer is elegance. At the ripe young age of 31, Mr. Aster brings impeccable technique and perfectly calibrated tone to his writing and direction. The e-word applies as well to Grace Yun’s production design, Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography, Colin Stetson’s music, and the editing by Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame. The other answer is Toni Collette. She plays Annie, a mother, wife and blighted daughter who has just lost her own mom. Annie is at the center of this carnival of grief, and Ms. Collette gives herself to the role with all the restraint of a hurricane making landfall. Though she can also be deliciously droll, as in an early funeral-parlor sequence when the daughter delivers a eulogy that not even her mother could have loved.
Annie is an artist, a balsa-wood miniaturist who sublimates her life experience into eerily detailed models (one of them depicts a hospice room presumably occupied by her mother) and who also builds dollhouses that give the film its unsettling, brilliantly distinctive visual motif—various houses inside a house that, like Russian dolls trapped in larger dolls, convey an impression of lives imprisoned by forces they can’t control. (In one example of Annie’s work, not to mention her consuming curiosity about matters of the occult, a treatise called “Norms on Discerning Presumed Apparitions” can be seen on her computer, and on a teeny-tiny computer she has fashioned for a tiny room.)
So far I’ve said nothing about what happens, and I won’t, except to give you a heads-up on the subject of heads, and to note that badness befalls, in variously ghastly ways, everyone in this equal-opportunity collection of victims, meaning Annie’s husband, Steve ( Gabriel Byrne ); their daughter, Charlie ( Milly Shapiro ), who has a cluck that amounts to a tic; and their son, Peter ( Alex Wolff ), who, at least for a while, seems to have the best shot at a normal life, and I don’t mean apparition-discerning norms. Ann Dowd contributes serious spookiness to the enterprise as Joan, a friend to Annie and an avocational spirit medium.
Treatises could and probably will be written on the film’s many and diverse sources of inspiration—the heredity of “Hereditary.” Some of them are easy to infer (“The Exorcist,” Medea, “Mommy Dearest,” Henry James and, why not, “Welcome To the Doll House”), while others are stated aloud (breezy characters like Iphigenia and Clytemnestra). But the main wellspring of inspiration is the filmmaker’s own imagination. Haunted-house movies come and go. Here’s a haunted-houses movie for the ages.