First, the bad news: Hereditary isn't by any means as all-time "scary" as the hype would have it (with the proviso, as usual, that one person's "scary" is another person's "silly" is another person's "boring" and so on). What it is, and it's almost as good, is distressing - a film that so persistently depicts human beings at their worst, locked into cycles of mutually-reinforcing destructive behaviors that it makes the whole world feel a little bleaker and sadder during the movie and for a while afterwards. A perfect summertime romp, then, and I'll admit to a certain pleasure in the utter perversity of this film getting a wide release even though I think it's unfair to the film and to the people who'll stumble into it unawares of what a soul-sick nasty piece of work they're in for.

Among its many gloomy touches, the film is absolutely saturated with death, right from its very odd opening: the text, in full, of an obituary for 78-year-old Ellen Leigh, who outlived her husband and son, and leaves behind a daughter, Annie Graham (Toni Collette), who herself has two children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne). Meanwhile, we hear the first tendrils of Colin Stetson's atonal score droning and scraping in the background. It's a terrific, disconcerting way to start out the movie, with the wall of banal text just hanging there, preventing the movie from getting started, kick-starting what will prove to be 127 minutes worth of messing with the viewer's sense of momentum and time.

This will not go away - Hereditary is an excruciatingly slow, drawn-out movie, where all of those modifiers are meant to be positive. Much of the film's incredible tension derives from writer-director Ari Aster's genius for knowing when to let the audience sit and stew, allowing a moment that might otherwise simply seem odd to curdle into something choking and and unbearable. Very little actually happens in the movie; there are many moments in which the film consists solely of watching the Grahams sitting in their mouldering crypt of a home, marinating in their past traumas and being extremely unhappy about their present suffering.

A plot synopsis would almost by its nature qualify as a spoiler, but basically what happens is that Annie has to come to terms with her unhealthy, unhappy relationship with her late mother. This involves many things: inconsistently attending a grief support group and having some nice chats with Joan (Ann Dowd), an older woman who lost her child and grandchild in a drowning accident; confronting the toxic relationship she has with Peter; dealing with Steve's rather useless decision to deal with everything by soldiering on like a sense of guilty grieving isn't hulking over the Graham home; pulling on a few threads of her mom's life that start to suggest that Ellen was up to some very irregular things with some very irregular people, and this might involve a family curse of a much more literal sense than the simple "emotional devastation and psychological abuse run in the family like a genetic condition" that Annie already knew about.

It's a character drama first and foremost, and a perfectly sublime one: Collette does some unaccountably extraordinary work, acting through a series of contorted faces, guttural howls, and despondent line deliveries. As a portrayal of incoherent guilt - about being a bad daughter, about being a bad mother - Annie is an almost unbearably good movie character, and Collette's work in bringing her to life is some of the most emotionally ravaging film acting I've seen in a very long time. This was to be expected; the bigger surprise is that Wolff is right along with her, coming from basically nowhere to play a state of psychological desolation. The film passes protagonist duties back and forth between Annie and Peter, uniting them in how suffocated they are by their own feelings of inadequacy and guilt, but dividing them in how that guilt manifests: where Collette is all stricken facial expressions and the rage of a rabid animal, Wolff is always about going slack, letting the soul and life leach out of his character right before our eyes. There's a moment, which is surely going to become one of the film's signature scenes, when Peter is  so shocked and traumatised by a violent moment that he just shuts down, and the camera holds on him for achingly long seconds without cutting, and Wolff holds the most ugly, awful expression on his face, voiding Peter of anything internal except for stunned pain.

The film's depiction of the wounds and miseries of familial dysfunction oozing out over the generations is excellent on a character level, and wonderfully evoked through the film's generic elements - for this is a horror film, one in which the ghosts of the past are quite literal, specific ghosts. It's also beautifully expressed in the production design by Grace Yun, which renders the interior of the Graham house in the fussy, overtly-posed style of a dollhouse. This is done literally in the opening shot of the film, which tracks into a dollhouse that invisibly transforms into Peter's room; it is done implicitly in the tracking shots that move past walls and in the compositions that position the camera at 90-degree angles to walls and make things look rectangular and flat; it is done symbolically in Annie's work as an artist creating small dioramas of the painful events in her life. The dollhouse aesthetic serves to isolate the family in their home, which feels somehow inhuman, much too close despite being full of inexplicable sprawl, lost in an apparently endless forest (the exteriors of the house themselves switch between miniature shots and full-scale establishing shots). It suggest both the desire to create an ideal domestic space and the fundamentally uncaring detachment of that idealism. It especially creates the  idea that this is all fake in some important way: that the domestic life the Grahams have lived was always founded on some artifice, controlled from outside just enough to prevent them from leaving. We might call that artifice Ari Aster's wonderful directing, and nod to the film as a superlative example of how great horror might use a sense of cosmic fatalism to trap its characters; we might simply stick within the confines of the script, and call it foreshadowing for how the plot eventually reveal that, in fact, Annie's life and the life of her family have been out of her control the whole time, dictated from afar by her monster of a mother.

This is, all of it, absolutely great: emotionally disturbing at a level that most horror doesn't even daydream about, smart about its characters and about families, beautifully composed by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, cut together by editors Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame to make every scene feel propulsive and taut even as the film itself crawls by glacially. The only problem with it, and "problem" should be judged relatively, is that the ending takes a strong swerve into pure convention: I won't name the films it evokes, but the final twist and what comes after puts Hereditary purely in the territory of horror convention, with little or none of the psychological acuity of the movie preceding that twist. It still feels right, in way: for all that the film belongs in the company of the great art-horror of the 2010s (it is particularly like The Babadook, I'd say, and I'd comfortably recommend it to everyone who loved that film and I'd be very nervous about recommending it to anyone who didn't), it belongs even more in the company of the great downbeat character-driven horror of the late '60s and early '70s, with the great adult pessimism that entails (as opposed to the adolescent cynicism of so much horror from the '80s onward). And the ending feels exactly like the ending from one of those movies, in ways that "work". Still, Hereditary has spent so much of its running time not being easily situated within a genre framework that its full commitment to ending with 10 or 12 solid minutes of outright horror boilerplate can't help but be a letdown, even if those 10 minutes work entirely well on their own terms.