It’s been causing a stir in cinemas in the UK, with tales of faintings, walk-outs and night terrors. The scariest film since…? Tom Bangay braves the frightfest that is Hereditary…

Horror fans have it good lately. The unstoppable juggernaut that is Blumhouse Productions has brought home the bacon with relentless, profit-spewing franchises like Insidious, Sinister, The Purge and Paranormal Activity; outside of Blumhouse, The Conjuring and its offshoots are similarly unstoppable. The cinemagoing public’s obvious appetite for horror films, and their commercial viability, has made room for superb filmmakers to make their mark in a genre that has sometimes struggled to attract talent and funding. Films like The Babadook, The Witch, The Eyes of My Mother, it’s big-budget remake and ultimately Oscar contender Get Out underline horror’s status as one of the most exciting genres to work in right now.

Into this line of succession walks Hereditary, the feature debut from Ari Aster, who made a splash with some challenging short films dealing with frothy fare like Munchausen syndrome by proxy, and incest. Hereditary is a family drama starring mum Annie (Toni Collette), dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and his younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro). We join the family just after the death of Annie’s mother, Ellen, who explains in her eulogy that their relationship was often difficult, as Ellen seemed to hide a lot from her family. Charlie is an odd child, distant from her family, drawn to the treehouse and with an unsettling habit of clicking her tongue. The family start to suffer from a seeming malevolent influence that may or may not be related to grandma; as events spiral out of control, Annie struggles to control her grief with alarming consequences.

The film is suffused with dread. Annie is a miniaturist, building tiny houses and dioramas, and Pawel Pogorzelski’s clinical cinematography uses this playfully to suggest a scene being manipulated from the outside. Interior scenes were even constructed on a soundstage so the filmmakers could remove walls, film scenes at a great distance and riff on the dollhouse aesthetic. Colin Stetson’s soundtrack is oppressive, squeezing tension into scenes and moments that would be otherwise inconsequential. It moves fairly slowly at first, but once the scares come they hit hard and land painfully. This is in large part due to the viscerally committed performance of Toni Collette – one of the quintessential underrated actors – who transmits fear, despair, loneliness, spite and anger with just a look, with the occasional explosion of emotion. Alex Wolff and particularly Milly Shapiro are remarkable as her children, being at once awkward teenagers and also terrified vessels for something much darker.

Just as The Babadook is really about grief, Hereditary confronts mental illness and trauma, and how they cascade down through a family. It’s also concerned with some fairly bonkers occult goings-on, some utterly grim moments of violence and death, and dread-fuelled hysteria that threatens to destroy an entire family in their own home. For a débutante director, Aster balances this all deftly. At 127 minutes it could be a shade shorter; the first cut ran to a terrifying three hours and lost thirty scenes before it was ready for the cinema. But all things being equal this is a mightily impressive début and a real treat for scare fans – particularly ones keen to avoid the wall-to-wall sport blanketing screens for the next month or so.

Hereditary is currently showing in selected UK cinemas.