First of all, you need to have a smart location scout. For a psychological, brain-breaking flick that dives into horror and the occult, it is essential that the mise en scène is just right. The big house in the woods – lots of timber and stairs, shadowy hallways and an attic – surrounded by silver birches is perfect. Somewhere in the isolated northwest of the US (it was shot in Utah), Annie’s mother has died, but Annie (Toni Collette) does not know how to react to her loss. Mom, it seems, was something of a dragon, and before too long her legacy begins to manifest itself in the peculiar behaviour of Annie’s little girl Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who has messed-up hair and an unpleasant face. It depends on your taste, but for mine, the first half of this film is the more compelling, for you are never quite sure if you are watching something that will stay with the close tracking of a woman who is collapsing psychologically under the strain of loss and self-hatred, or evolve into bizarro nightmare-world. Collette’s supreme ability to shift into emotional overdrive without losing credibility fits the part well, but the character of her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is less defined. Throughout he is little more than a passive, uninvolved observer. Annie’s high-school son Peter (Alex Wolff) is collateral damage from the crisis that grips the family before a weird séance medium enters the scene. Much depends on your acceptance of what might be passed on from one generation to the next – whether it be eye-colour or satanic tendencies – and whether or not there is such a thing as an ‘afterlife’. It has been compared favourably with The Exorcist, but that movie really did shock, because it broke new ground that had not been ventured into in mainstream cinema, whereas director Ari Aster almost shoots himself in the foot with an ending that is just plain silly. But in a cartoon age, what would you expect?
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