Hereditary ✮✮✮

Heeere’s Annieee!

By Glenn Lovell

What do you get when you cast a crazy intense actress in a low-budget horror film inspired in equal measures by Shirley Jackson, Rosemary Woodhouse, and, for its especially creepy understatement, the Brit classic “Séance on a Wet Afternoon”? How about one of the most assured exercises in the supernatural since New Zealand’s “The Babadook.”

Directed by Ari Aster, “Hereditary” stars Toni Collette as Annie, an artist who designs miniature dollhouse tableaux that both comment on and presage reality. Annie hered2is coping (badly) with the death of her mother, who, it becomes increasingly clear, was into pentagrams, covens and the other trappings of Satanism. And though Mom may be six feet under, she isn’t done with Annie and husband Steve (a refreshing sane Gabriel Byrne) and their kids, Peter (Alex Wolff) and his strange 12-year-old sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who, like Carrie, seems to have telekinetic powers.

Each could be a conduit (unwitting “familiar”) to the netherworld.

Talked into grief therapy, the initially shy Annie soon begins to vent and vent … and vent. Obviously no stranger to the process she traces her debilitating guilt to her manipulative mother, clinically depressed father who starved himself to death, and a schizophrenic brother who hanged himself in their mother’s closet.

As she airs the family’s dirty laundry, Annie’s demeanor changes. She goes from nervous to angry to almost demented. And like others in the group, our jaw hits the floor and we begin to question Annie’s reliability, her stability.

This rich psychological subtext more than anything sets “Hereditary” apart, pushes it from unsettling to disturbing to balls-to-the-wall scary. Indeed, the conventional hocus pocus (Tinkerbell lights, messages from beyond, levitating bodies) feels old-hat.

The smallest thing — a gesture, a perceived slight — sets Annie off. Add to this a penchant for sleepwalking with matches, and you’ve got the makings of one seriously troubled woman.

As played by the always intense Collette (“The Sixth Sense,” “Little Miss Sunshine”), Annie is as much a walking time bomb as Jack Nicholson’s caretaker in “The Shining.” The distinctive-looking Aussie actress has never been afraid to go off the rails to nail a character. Here, she immerses herself in a mother’s primal fears, at times contorting her rubbery face into hideous mask.

Aster’s first feature looks as it were shot in the Pacific Northwest – it has a crisp, airy, verdant feel. (It was in fact shot outside Salt Lake City.) Aster’s directorial style is a mix of the cerebral and the bleakly funny — part Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf,” part Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” His narrative is spiked with signs and clues (the smiling strangers at mother’s funeral, daughter Charlie’s obsession with severed heads) that will seem obvious in repeat viewings.

The second time around I found myself scanning early scenes for Joan (Ann Dowd), an unusually empathetic and helpful member of Annie’s therapy group.

Not coincidentally, Peter’s high school lit class is studying a Sophocles play whose characters, in the words of one particularly observant student, are “pawns in this terrible, hopeless machine.” Sound familiar?

As a run-up to Halloween by all means check this one out. Believe me, you’ll exit clucking your tongue in satisfaction.

HEREDITARY ✮✮✮ With Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd. Written, directed by Ari Aster. 127 min. Rated R (for violence, gruesome makeup effects, intense situations)

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