'Hereditary': Toni Collette is the main attraction of this old school horror movie layered thick with original ideas

Hereditary begins with a sparsely attended funeral, an awkward eulogy and after a bit, an even more awkward phone call from the cemetery.

We only hear one side of the conversation, but a puzzled question from the decedent’s son-in-law (Gabriel Byrne) raises concerns.

“What does that mean…desecrated?”

Well, buddy, you’re about to find out.

The despoiling of the sacred is in the DNA of Hereditary, an old-fashioned, effectively atmospheric chiller about a woman (Toni Collette) falling apart after the death of her  mother.

At the service Annie (Collette) describes mom as “secretive.” Not a decorous thing to say, but accurate. She was a strange woman with strange habits, weird friends, and a past dotted with grisly events. For these and other reasons, Annie kept her away from her son, but grandma was embedded in the life of  daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the one member of the family who truly mourns.

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Annie’s son Peter (Alex Wolff) and her husband (Byrne) are plainly relieved to have grandma out of the house, and Annie should be too, but there are signs grandma isn’t as gone as Annie would like her to be. An old lady’s ghostly form seems to lurk in darkened corners, disappearing when the light comes on. The door to her room mysteriously opens. Her signature needlepoint turns up in the strangest places. Flaming apparitions appear, with a white-haired woman in the middle.

Is that you, grandma?

Writer-director Ari Aster excels at making these old-school horror movie moves (he gets great mileage out of seance scenes), and the intensifying atmosphere of dread is thick. And he layers on effective, original ideas. Like the fact that Annie is an artist who works in miniatures. With her jeweler’s eyepiece and tiny implements, she builds little houses full of little furniture, little people (Aster is apparently referencing the works of American artist Narcissa Thorne).

Annie is a woman barely in control of herself and her life, but through her art brings things to a manageable scale, and imposes a degree of control. Initially. Over time her artwork seems to announce her deteriorating mental state. As events in Annie’s life get more horrific, so do her tiny scenes.

Die-aramas, you might call them.

After art therapy fails, a desperate Annie attends grief counseling group, and finds solace in the help of a kindly widow, played by Ann Dowd, who gets to have great fun here in a role with late-breaking significance.

Collette, though, is the main attraction, worth the price of admission as she keeps us wondering if Annie’s inheritance is madness, a curse, or madness caused by a curse. If that sounds like Greek drama, note that Aster appears to have based the story loosely on Sophocles’ play Women of Trachis.

A very gruesome play, so brace yourself. Although, as with so many horror movies, we end up being more unnerved by things concealed than the things ultimately revealed.

MOVIES

Hereditary

  • Directed by Ari Aster. With Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro and Ann Dowd. Distributed by A24.
  • Parents guide: R (violence)
  • Running time: 2 hours, 7 mins.
  • Playing at: Area theaters