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‘Exhuma’ (review)

As most horror fans will attest to, quality horrors in mainstream English language cinema can be few and far between, and any gore hound who is not scared of subtitles will agree that those two lines of text on your screen can unearth a whole new world of excellent horrors to choose from.

After an underwhelming start to 2024, Exhuma breathes new life into the horror release schedule, and thanks to the film having taken Korea by storm, it is also getting a wider international release, enabling more cinemagoers to enjoy this supernatural thriller with genre stalwart Choi Min-Sik leading the engaging cast.

The cast is far from the only thing that thrills here, though, as the cinematography also helps elevate the atmosphere, and creative choices of how to portray the supernatural elements in the first half of the film in particular lends a thrilling, understated sense of dread that manages to unsettle without having to resort to jump scares.

While comparing Exhuma to The Wailing is unfair, as Exhuma is a bit more on the nose compared to Na Hong-Jin’s 2016 effort, some audiences will inevitably do so solely due to the plot revolving around Korean spiritual beliefs and both films prominently featuring contemporary representations of shamans.

Where the two films differ, however, is in Exhuma being a more straightforward supernatural thriller, whereas the ambiguity of The Wailing was what got under many a viewer’s skin, making that film thoroughly unsettling on a primal level.

The first half of Exhuma is particularly strong, allowing the tension and mystery to build as the uncertainty of what exactly is going on keeps mounting until the truth is slowly revealed and the ambiguity increasingly gives way to the supernatural elements, which are still restrained in this portion of the film.

The second half of the film, however, is where some audiences may disconnect from the narrative, as the supernatural elements take over and any ambiguity and mystery is largely cast aside in favor of more direct, gory horror, but it is nonetheless still much more intriguing than most Western horrors, and the sheer relentlessness of the narrative continuing to expand makes Exhuma an exhilarating experience for the vast majority of its runtime.

Relying to an extent on the audience’s understanding of Korean spiritual beliefs and cultural practice as well as the wider, general history of the peninsula, those familiar with these aspects will likely find an additional layer of engagement with the film, albeit having little to no knowledge about these aspects should not deter viewers from watching the film.

In a time where the vast majority of Hollywood’s horrors are bogged down by jump scares and suffer from lazy writing, looking to other nations for your scares is only natural, and while it is hardly the masterpiece The Wailing was, Exhuma is nonetheless an exciting horror mystery that overwhelmingly delivers in both scares and atmosphere.

Where Hollywood horrors often exposition dump, Exhuma allows the audience to be kept in the dark in a world that feels tactile, lived in and relatable in spite of the supernatural narrative. Similarly, the characters are also more complex, allowing the audience to better invest in them, which in turn helps elevate the stakes as the audience is allowed to sit with their discomfort instead of immediately breaking the tension the way Western horrors so often do with misplaced humor or cheap scare tactics.

Verdict: 8 out of 10.

*  *  *   *   *
Produced by Kim Young-min
Written and Directed by Jang Jae-hyun
Starring Choi Min-sik, Kim Go-eun, Yoo Hae-jin, Lee Do-hyun
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