Film review: Hereditary is a masterclass in terror titillation

Toni Colette and Gabriel Byrne star in Ari Aster's Hereditary, a good old fashioned spine-chiller that, despite an unsatisfying ending, left Damon Smith's gob well and truly smacked

Milly Shapiro, Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff in Hereditary
Milly Shapiro, Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff in Hereditary

MODERN horror films seldom prioritise nerve-shredding suspense – the kind of creeping dread that sends beads of sweat trickling down your spine and haunts your waking dreams.

Instead, we're spoon-fed a familiar diet of senseless slaughter and jump scares like a malevolent force emerging at speed from darkness to a blast of staccato strings on the soundtrack.

The last film to achieve that high-wire act of sustained, unbearable tension was Robert Eggers's supernatural thriller, The Witch.

Writer-director Ari Aster's twisted family portrait comes close to repeating the feat, only to descend into madness with a loopy final act that will sharply divide and perplex audiences who have been biting their nails down to the cuticle for the previous 90 minutes.

Hereditary performs a cinematic striptease, holding our gaze (even when we want to look away) by peeling away the layers of darkness and deceit that condemn one grief-stricken family to a grim fate.

It's a masterclass in terror titillation, choreographed to a discomfiting orchestral score by composer Colin Stetson and unsettling sound effects like a teenage girl repeatedly clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth.

Like all stripteases, Ari Aster's horror thriller ultimately has to bare all, and when the film performs its big reveal – with a flourish – we realise we have seen this story many times before.

Miniaturist artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is deeply affected by the death of her estranged mother, who cast a long shadow over the family and took Annie's daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) under her wing.

Following the secretive matriarch's funeral, Annie begins to sense a presence in the family home and her erratic behaviour causes grave concern for husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff).

In desperation, Annie turns to a grief support group where she meets a local woman called Joan (Ann Dowd), who has suffered her own recent loss. Joan sweetly suggests Annie could conduct a seance to forge a connection to her mother's lingering spirit.

As the disturbances within the Graham family home increase in frequency, Annie makes a bold decision that has terrifying repercussions for her loved ones.

Hereditary slowly tightens a knot of discomfort, heightened by a bravura lead performance from Collette, who turns silent screams into an artform.

Aster demonstrates a flair for sadistic mind games with slow-burn shocks like when Peter stares absently into the glass pane of a classroom cupboard and realises his reflection has a rictus grin.

The resolution is an anti-climax after the film has spent more than an hour dragging the narrative's nails down a blackboard. However, there is no denying that Aster engineers some creepy moments, one of which made me audibly gasp.

My gob was well and truly smacked.

HEREDITARY (15, 127 mins) Horror/Thriller/Romance. Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd. Director: Ari Aster

RATING: 8/10

Released: June 15 (UK & Ireland)