“Hereditary” opens Friday in the Boston area at megaplexes and a handful of art-houses, which is an unusual and noteworthy occurrence. The division between these two pop-culture exhibition arenas, mainstream and indie/alt, is almost always rigorously enforced, but A24, the adventurous distributor of Ari Aster’s debut feature, is placing its bets across the table. Basically, they think the movie’s going to scare the bejesus out of everyone. They’re right.
It’s an eerie mood piece that slowly and surely tightens the thumb screws before all hell breaks loose; that and the fact that much of “Hereditary” takes place in one rambling dark house is evidence that Aster has spent a lot of time studying “The Shining,” “The Exorcist,” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” It’s nice to have a classicist back in town.
Above all, the movie’s a zero-to-60 showcase for actress Toni Collette, who plays Annie Graham, one stressed mother. Her own elderly mother has just died, and Annie’s funeral eulogy serves notice that the old lady was not much given to the warm and fuzzies. The plot engine that rumbles along beneath the film’s carefully doled-out scares is what, exactly, Grandma was up to in the years before she died, and why the Graham family seems to still be living under a curse.
Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is hale and hearty and average, but he’s about the only one. Teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff, who also played Byrne’s son on HBO’s “In Treatment”) is a high school stoner just coming to grips with the skeletons in his family’s closet, not all of whom may be dead. Younger sister Charlie (newcomer Milly Shapiro) is a birdlike misfit who was Grandma’s favorite in ways that seem increasingly creepy.
“Hereditary” is an entry in a slow-horror movement that has taken wing in recent years and that includes films like “It Comes at Night,” “It Follows,” “The Witch,” even the recent “A Quiet Place.” It’s long on atmospherics, and Aster uses extended takes, close angles, an eldritch eye for visuals, and inventive sound design to put audiences into a state of clammy-palmed dread. Charlie, who has a face out of a Diane Arbus photo, makes an absent-minded clucking noise that by the film’s end has you jumping out of your seat.
But Aster, whose 2011 short “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” was so disturbing that fans posted YouTube videos of themselves reacting to the film, also delivers the jolts in smart, scary ways. There’s a lot I can’t give away about what happens in “Hereditary,” but an event about 30 minutes in signals that the gloves will be coming off, along with assorted body parts. As the movie follows the Grahams down a narrowing path to the film’s climax, pieces of the puzzle fall together in awful yet dramatically satisfying ways, and Collette especially is given ample room to express everything from quiet sadness to mind-numbing terror.
She and the movie explore the panic of a woman losing her center — scorned by her mother, ignored by her children, taken for granted by her husband — while trying desperately to pass for normal. Annie is an artist who makes dollhouses and miniature dioramas for art galleries; she uses her craft to re-create and contain the traumatic events around her, and “Hereditary” plays with our heads as well as hers. Is all this unfolding in the dollhouse of Annie’s imagination? Does Joan (Ann Dowd), an older woman who befriends her at a grief therapy meeting, have ulterior motives? (It’s Aunt Lydia from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” so that’s a safe bet.)
Because Collette’s in a horror movie, her performance may not be recognized for what it is: a great one. At the same time, “Hereditary” feels slightly less than the hype that has been building ever since the film conquered Sundance in January. It’s not this year’s “Get Out,” for one thing; Jordan Peele’s debut had an idea and a governing metaphor that you could take into the real world after the movie ended. Aster, by contrast, has built a closed box of heightened, almost purified genre craft, one that holds you in its uneasy grip from the first frame and that ups the tension, step by bloody step, from there. “Hereditary” serves as an introduction to a major new filmmaking talent while leaving open what, if anything, he has to say.
Written and directed by Ari Aster. Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, megaplexes in Boston and suburbs. 123 minutes. R (horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use, and brief graphic nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.