Toni Collette gives a transcendent performance as a mother being torn to pieces by conflicting emotions. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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Movie review

Toni Collette is the most awe-inspiring special effect in “Hereditary.” This is a horror picture of uncommon effectiveness in terms of its ability to creep the audience out, and it’s Collette who cranks the creep meter deep into the red zone.

She’s playing a woman beset by nearly unbearable guilt. Guilt over the very fact that she despised her own mother, who despised her in return. Guilt compounded by the fact she didn’t want to become a mother herself. “I never wanted to be your mother!” she wails to her teenage son (Alex Wolff). That shattering confession is followed immediately by her anguished declaration that she loves the unwanted kid. And that claim is true as well.

She’s a woman being torn to pieces by conflicting emotions, and the pain and grief of her tormented state is there — visible, unmistakable, frightening in its intensity — on Collette’s haunted face, and in the desperation in her voice.

It’s a performance so powerful and so disturbing that you want to look away. But at the same time you can’t look away. It’s a performance that draws the audience in, holds it tight, traps it, practically suffocates it.

And then, in a scene where this mother suffers the gruesome loss of a beloved family member, that loss triggers screams of such horrifying anguish that writer-director Ari Aster keeps the camera at a great distance as though he feared getting too close to that cataclysmic eruption of raw emotion would melt the screen.

That’s acting on a level rarely seen in horror movies. It’s acting in service of a screenplay that delves deeply into issues of parental psychology and responsibility, into the layered complexities of how parents interact with their kids. Collette is thoroughly attuned to the nuances of Aster’s screenplay and gives a transcendent performance.

Aster sets his story in a spacious, well-appointed house deep in the woods where Collette’s character, Annie, her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and their children, Peter (Wolff) and younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a kid with strange, almost lifeless eyes, experience increasingly unsettling goings-on. A dimly perceived ghostly presence lurks on the premises. Charlie’s peculiar art projects fashioned from dead creatures and Annie’s obsessive preoccupation with constructing miniature dioramas that eerily mimic her home and the people in it are also in the mix.

Aster, whose directorial debut this is, certainly knows how to build and sustain a mood of disorienting dread. But, by the end, he allows the picture to descend into a Grand Guignol-style excess of blood, flames and grisly corpses. And at more than two hours, it’s simply too long.

However, thanks to Collette’s work, “Hereditary” is a horror movie that really sinks its claws into you.

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★★★ “Hereditary,” with Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd. Written and directed by Ari Aster. 126 minutes. Rated R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity. Opens June 8 at multiple theaters.