Exhuma Movie Review: A smart, nightmare-inducing horror masterwork with carefully timed reveals and chills

Having a mythological and political basis for its overall design helps Exhuma rise above the standard horror fare
Exhuma Movie Review

If you take some of the greatest horror or thriller films of the 70s through the 90s, they have one notable quality: they excelled in the art of teasing and revelation. They knew when and how to tease, when and how to reveal something. They understand that beauty and terror lie in the unseen and show you enough to build a sense of anticipation and dread without overwhelming us with their intentions. They also get you reflecting on life and death -- or life after death. Korean filmmaker Jang Jae-hyun knows this well. 


In Exhuma, he creates a masterwork that took me back to the days when I discovered the first two Alien films and the first two Terminator films -- two examples of storytelling that not only got you reading up about their creation but also science fiction, aliens, robots, and the infinite possibilities within the realm of a specific genre. In terms of conjuring inventive ways to impress audiences with an equal amount of scare and spectacle, Exhuma is comparable to those iconic examples. It's difficult for me to write a review about a horror film without even remotely touching on anything that might ruin the experience for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. I'll try.


Let's start with the casting of Choi Min-Sik, an actor often associated with dark roles and subjects (Oldboy, I Saw the Devil). As a Feng Shui master in Exhuma, he is supposed to offer comfort in a morbid terrain -- a man who believes in the natural order of things, the life-birth cycle, and the importance of land. He has this habit of tasting the soil of every place he sets foot on. It's his way of checking for malicious forces. He is a wise, reasonable man who would prefer people follow the "rules" to avoid upsetting the balance. He has been so close to death so many times that he probably doesn't fear death anymore. Now, there's something comfortable about having someone like that in a horror movie, no? He doesn't strike us as a traditional hero from the get-go, and it has to do with Min-sik's performance, which exudes warmth and wisdom. It also helps that this investigator isn't playing a tortured soul with a drinking problem, that oft-repeated tiresome cliche. 


One admirable quality about Korean thrillers, which Indian ones severely lack, is the natural, life-infused approach the former takes when delivering certain information through dialogues. Indian cinema, on the other hand, often resorts to cold, robotic line deliveries -- sometimes with English forcefully incorporated. The Korean filmmakers, armed with a potent arsenal of competent actors, can make the ideas in a horror or sci-fi movie palatable by sometimes wrapping them up in humour and fun camaraderie. It's a clever way to begin a film that's about to get a whole lot darker, to ease us gently into the world of the film. And this is a world that draws quite significantly and judiciously from Korean and Japanese folklore. And if you are a great admirer of the jidaigeki genre, you'll likely find much delight in an unnatural entity's visualisation.


See, now that's another quality I love in these great horror movies -- the design of their nightmare-inducing inhabitants. Again, having a mythological and political basis for these designs helps Exhuma rise above the standard horror fare. We could say this of most Korean thrillers even. You sense the influence of a country's political history on them. For instance, an in-flight conversation that opens the film makes sense as we get closer to the film's third act. 


Narrated in multiple chapters, Exhuma is two horror movies for the price of one, and the starting point for the second half is a development that we first assume the film had forgotten. But when you see how intense everything gets later, you realise this is a clear-cut, well-thought-out screenplay structure that relies on sustained tension, an extraordinary sound design, an eerie background score, carefully considered editing choices, and imagery that brilliantly employs light and shadows. Sometimes, you can terrify someone by concealing certain features of whatever it is you're trying to do that with, and Exhuma pulls this off wonderfully. Isn't it much better when you go, "What is that thing, man?" A particular forest sequence in the third act reminded me of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place. 


This story should appeal to Indian viewers who grew up hearing a fair amount of superstition and supernatural tales. As soon as the film ended, I was browsing Wiki pages mentioning the myths and legends surrounding some creepy elements that reared their ugly heads (pun intended) in Exhuma. Their names, though, are difficult to remember. Interestingly, the film never mentions them. But what's in a name when the image is enough to give us a nightmare? The makers understood the assignment.

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