* * * * 1/2
Hereditary is the best American horror film since The Sixth Sense. The fact that Toni Collette is in both says a couple of things. That she can pick fantastic projects, and collaborators, absolutely. But also, that writer/director Ari Aster has impeccable taste along with a sense of history. To my mind, Aster knew, when he finished his screenplay, that he had written the best horror script since The Sixth Sense, and that – as when that film came out, revitalised the upmarket American horror film scene, and established M. Night Shyamalan as a “master of horror” – so too would all those things happen for him. They deserve to.
It remains to be seen whether his film will make it all the way to the Oscar race, as The Sixth Sense did (and as Get Out did last year); certainly, Collette should be in the running. Her performance here, as an artist, wife and mother dealing with the death of her own complicated, problematic mother, is one for the books. It’s got the lot: emotional complexity and integrity but also audacity and unwavering commitment to the essence of the film, what it’s trying to be. She understands the intention of every beat, and that while on the whole realism is the order of the day, sometimes something else, something for the sake of the moment and the mood, is necessary. She’s never afraid, or embarrassed, that she’s in a horror film.
Aster honours horror’s past beyond the casting of Collette, and one of the most admirable and effective things about the film is how many established horror tropes it uses in fresh, inventive ways. The whole film could have felt like a stale pastiche, but it is anything but; indeed, it’s the opposite, feeling like a rebirth or an awakening. And it is; this is the dawn of a new filmmaker of consummate skill whom we must notice and follow if we care about American horror cinema at all.
Aster’s judgement is confident, mature, unerring. The film’s casting is precise and evocative, and includes a striking find in young Milly Shapiro, playing Collette’s daughter. The cinematography is beautiful, unnerving and deliberate, emphasising shadows, moonlight and dusk (the film was shot in Utah) that evokes the feel of the great American horror cinema of the 1970s. The music is unobtrusive yet consistently effective, the production design immaculate and vital. Most satisfying of all is the pace, which is stately. Aster doesn’t rush a thing. He’s written a brilliant script and he’s brought it to the screen with the respect it deserves. One of the films of 2018, which is turning out to be a very, very good year for discerning, adult cinema.