Thursday, March 14, 2024

Grave Calling: Exhuma (2024) Review

 Director: Jang Jae-hyun

Notable Cast: Choi Min-sik, Kim Go-eun, Yoo Hai-jin, Lee Do-hyun, Kim Jae-chul, Kim Min-jun, Kim Byung-oh

"And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken" - Ecclesiastes 4:12

Horror films that deal with religious aspects have been around for decades, and I know titles are flooding to mind as you read this, so no need to name-drop anything. Faith and spirituality are truly remarkable and beautiful ways of life for many humans. Regardless of what you may or may not believe in, what awaits beyond death's door, with our understanding of this life, good or bad, can be exciting or terrifying. Since this is a spooky piece of cinema, as you can imagine, the supernatural forces that be aren't the friendliest lot around, and that is the very basis for Exhuma, the newest outing by acclaimed horror director Jang Jae-hyun, who previously won audiences over with his works Priests (2015) and Svaha: The Sixth Finger (2019). He continues his religion-themed horror here, this time delving into shamanism, among many other things, and what awaits the viewer embarking on this chilly and bloody adventure is a lot of thrills and a whole lot of pissed-off evil spirits.

The plot involves a wealthy Korean family in America who has been experiencing some supernatural forces that have been wreaking havoc in their household. They reach out to two shamans, played by Kim Go-eun and Lee Do-hyun, who investigate and discover that a dark force of the family's ancestors has attached itself within the home and is using a technique they call "grave calling" from back in South Korea. The two then return to their homeland, bringing the family along per the request of a geomancer they reach out to, who is played by Choi Min-sik. He specializes in seeking out land plots for graves and knows the ins and outs of good resting places for the dead. He, alongside his assistant, played by Yoo Hai-jin, suggests removing the grave from the vile ground it inhabits. The family, while hesitant initially, agrees to do so as the evil presence begins to loom heavier on their existence. I don't wish to really explain much past this point, but let's just say, as expected, things don't go according to plan, and a lot of insanity ensues beyond the extraction of the familial casket.

I went into this one pretty excited for the potential, as while I didn't truly love Priests, I thought the highs in that film were extremely high, and the horror aspects just hit so hard in that one. I went back and viewed the short film 12th Assistant Deacon, which served as the basis for the feature version of the film, and it is excellent as well. Director Jang has a knack for writing very humanistic characters. He respects them and makes them feel very much like real people. He also, at least in the three films he has created thus far, deals with religion in some shape or form and brings a level of respect and understanding to the subjects at hand. He seems to do his research, and it shows on screen. What makes this film so effective is the core group of four characters battling against evil forces. The family that is being torn apart does a great job, too, and while those characters aren't quite as richly explored as the main four, you get a sense of where each of them is coming from and how the family is interconnected, for better or worse. When the horror comes, there is a sense of high stakes and a team that is easy to get behind. The cast does a phenomenal job of not outshining each other and creates this very organic and natural set of performances that feel real despite the otherworldly things unfolding before our eyes. If there were a standout, I'd point to Kim Go-eun, who goes all in as the shaman, and those scenes where she performs a certain ritual will stick with you. She is just an incredible and versatile actress and never ceases to impress me.

Getting into the horror aspect, the film is slow and brooding and takes quite a bit of time to get to the actual scares. It goes for a sense of eeriness and nails the late fall aesthetic, with the creepy trees in the mountainside as our heroes make their way to the grave plot. It feels chilly, and the film looks perfect. The actual scares range from subtle to a handful of jump-scares, only with one in particular that annoyed me, but beyond that, the film goes with some choices in horror that I wasn't expecting, and I don't wish to spoil that here, but what they end up fighting is really cool and extremely memorable. It should stick with audiences. Very creepy and a great addition to an already great feature. The film only leans heavily into the blood later on in the film, and then it doesn't shy away from it at all. It was nice that the film didn't lean too far one way or another and used the violence depicted onscreen effectively. When these moments happen, you feel the weight of what is being shown, which again all comes back to having well-written characters you care about as this journey is being played out. Jang has really refined his writing here. Some additional viewings may help with the density of some of the elements being explored in the film, but it isn't very hard to follow in the end and never becomes overly demanding.

With films like Sleep and now Exhuma, it seems South Korea is having a little resurgence of horror films that leave an impact. I only hope the genre can be represented with as much confidence as this. Jang Jae-hyun has really come into his own and deserves to be mentioned among the best East Asian horror filmmakers. I hope he continues to explore the genre and brings many more great gems to us enthusiasts. Exhuma is a remarkable piece of horror cinema that sinks its bloody teeth into you and won't let go. I loved this one and have been thinking about it all day, and the more I sit with it, the more things leap to mind that impress. This will be one of the high points for horror in 2024, and I feel confident in saying that this early into the year. For horror enthusiasts and for those looking for something a bit different, give this one a go. It gets my highest recommendation.

Written by Josh Parmer

1 comment:

  1. Your post is a masterpiece of brilliance! Insightful, well-articulated, and truly valuable. Thanks for sharing your perspective.