Australian actress Toni Collette becomes the new ‘scream queen’ in Ari Aster’s terrifying psychological thriller about parents left with a diabolical legacy after the family matriarch’s death.
This ominous story begins with a terse eulogy for dementia-addled, 78 year-old Ellen Taper Leigh by her dry-eyed daughter Annie Graham (Collette), who describes her difficult mother as so secretive and suspicious that she won’t be missed by those left behind.
“Should I be sadder?” Annie asks her soft-spoken husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne).
Barely surviving a harrow childhood with a suicidal father, schizoid brother and this mysteriously remote mother, Annie is an artist who lives in an architecturally magnificent home in rural Utah, where she creates a mixed-media tableaux of tiny, detailed doll houses that are filled with miniature representations of herself.
One week after her mother’s burial, Annie discovers her secret journal about spiritualism and glimpses a barely visible phantom, her mother’s ghost.
Shortly after, when a bird flies into the window of the tree-house where Annie’s 13 year-old daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro) likes to sleep, she calmly picks it up and cuts off its head with a pair of scissors. And Annie’s older son, Peter (Alex Wolff), a moody, pot-smoking high-school student, gets involved in a fatal car accident.
As part of her mourning, Annie goes to a grief-counseling group in which a participant relates how she contacted her dead son with the help of a medium. so Annie conjures up her own séance, trying to reach Charlie.
Meanwhile, Steve seems oblivious – totally unaware that supernatural forces may be at work, causing Annie’s extreme emotional agony.
Making his full-length feature directing debut, visually ambitious Ari Aster does a masterful job of creating a pervasive sense of menace, even if the middle section sags. Eventually, he stages a grisly, gory and over-the-top finale, musically punctuated by Judy Collins singing Joni Mitchell’s ballad “Both Sides Now.”
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On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Heredity” is a manipulatively subtle 7, scary stuff.