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Horror movies make a ton of money these days, so it’s a safe bet they’re going to keep cranking them out. It’s nice when you get the occasional one like this that’s more of a slow-burn, with a terrific cast, instead of a bunch of teenagers playing spin-the-bottle, and then getting stabbed in the neck when they go out in the woods to makeout. It’s just a shame that first-time director Ari Aster gives us some sinister ambiance and the first half of a great film, before going off the rails and becoming a goofy, cliched mess at the end.

My favorite performances in this were from the women. Newcomer Milly Shapiro is just outstanding, freaking us out with the constant clicking sound she makes with her mouth and scary facial expressions. The things she says are always perfect at creeping us out, too.

Toni Collette, who is amazing in another scary movie (The Sixth Sense, which got her an Oscar nomination), is incredible here. A few times when she’s scared, her facial expressions remind me of Shelly Duvall in The Shining (there are a few other things about this that make me think of The Shining); but there are a couple of dramatic scenes you’ll just marvel at. One of those has her screaming in anger at her son (played by Nat Wolff of Paper Towns and Fault in our Stars)

The production design and set pieces are all intriguing. My wife and I loved the fact that Annie (Collette) makes diorama houses, and from the start (with an interesting opening that shows their house), you get glimpses of things from their lives. In one particularly bizarre image, you see her breast feeding her baby, with grandma standing in the doorway with her breast out. Since grandmother dies early on, and you’ve seen the trailers for this movie, you know that she was probably up to no good. And it’s interesting to see some of that unfold.

We get a eulogy that is rather telling, as it’s not the most loving thing you’ve ever heard. We also listen as Annie talks to her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) about feeling guilty for not being sad. He never really seems involved in much of the family dynamics.

Their son Peter (Wolff) always looks stoned, and that’s because…he usually is.

His sister Charlie (Shapiro) seems to either have some mental problems, or she’s just being possessed by evil spirits.

This movie has two things I’ve seen a lot of in movies the last six months — barfing, and the terrific Ann Dowd. She’s not the one barfing. She plays Joan, who Annie meets at a grief support group. She’s so sweet and cheerful, you can’t help thinking she is like Ruth Gordon’s sweet neighbor character in Rosemary’s Baby. Yes, this does have a handful of the horror movie tropes, but it’s so stylishly done, you don’t mind. The plot thickens when Joan convinces Annie to do a seance with her (any guesses on how that will turn out?). When Annie tries to recreate this with her skeptical husband, I started thinking about the scene in the original Poltergeist.

The fun score, by Colin Stetson, also had a Shining vibe about it.

What’s a shame is that there were at least four scenes my wife and I hated so much, because of inconsistencies and how they didn’t make sense in how things were handled. One of them involves a character that kills somebody accidentally, and simply drives home and goes to bed, with the body in his car. Another scene involves a teenager telling his mom he’s going to a “school barbecue.” She wants to know if there will be drinking and once she’s assured there won’t be, he’s forced to bring his younger sister. Our first question was — why would you let a 12-year-old girl go to a party with 17 and 18-year-old boys when you know booze will be involved? Also, how does she not know her son is always smoking pot? He even smokes it in his room. I’m guessing it would smell on his clothes, and she’d notice the stoned look of his dilated pupils. And, there are a few scenes where it’s mentioned that the young girl doesn’t have her EpiPen with her. Uh, why not? If you’re aware enough to mention this every time the girl is about to eat something, how’s about you put an extra one in your purse, or let her carry one on her person?

Another scene that bugged us was a kid in class, that we believe was being possessed. He looks into a window, and his frowning face is showing a smile. His hand then rises into the air, and as the teacher calls on him, the hand twists in the opposite direction, his face contorts oddly, and his head is smashed twice into the desk. It breaks his nose and sends him flying backwards onto the ground. So what does the next scene show? The father driving him home from school, with a bandaged up nose. Uh…doesn’t he stay in the hospital after that? Or get put into a psych ward for evaluation?

Overall, the movie held my interest, but I just wish a better story was written. The idea that an evil spirit is “hereditary” is a solid one. And we thought with the grandmother dying, the little girl would go all Damien on us. Instead, it was like the director didn’t know what kind of story he wanted to tell. He just threw a bunch of creepy scenes at us — bodies being dug up, the image of someone sitting in the dark, drawing in a notepad by a ghost, an eerie red light coming out of a tree house, etc. It’s just a shame this movie couldn’t finish stronger.

2 stars out of 5.

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