‘Exhuma’ Review: Hey, Shaman. Leave Those Graves Alone.

Exhuma

Writer/director Jae-hyun Jang’s (The Priests, Svaha: The Sixth Finger) Exhuma regularly calls to mind Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing. Both are dense, often episodic, forays into shamanism with a side helping of tragic Korean history to ground their more out-there scares. Exhuma, already a domestic box office sensation, likely won’t yield the same cultural cache stateside that The Wailing did. But, it’s a commercial firecracker of a ghost story and arguably one of the best South Korean horror imports in years. Exhuma digs deep into the marrow of horror history and unearths something remarkable.

Billionaire Park Ji-yong’s summons Shaman Lee Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun) and her partner (professional) Yoon Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun) to Los Angeles to investigate the hauntings plaguing firstborns in his family. Exhuma is split into chapters, and the first is principally expositional. It introduces Hwa-rim’s shamanism, her capacity to sense the space between light and dark, and the subtle implication she’s made a fortune doing so.

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Jae-hyun Jang regularly subverts expectations. Alongside the introduction of geomancer Kim Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik, Oldboy) and his partner, Yeong-geun (Yoo Hae-jin) back home, the supposition is such that, like a lot of contemporary South Korean genre fare, the movie plans to exhume the bodies of wealth disparity and the spiritualists who exploit the rich when they’re left with no other option.

Wealth, power, and legacy are central to the scares Exhuma regularly unfurls, but this supernatural shocker eschews more conventional genre elements. Instead, it builds its big, bloody curse from the annals of domestic tragedy and longstanding geographic trauma. That is to say, when the four work together back in South Korea to rid the Park family of their curse, the burgeoning threat emerges from their willingness to help, not subterfuge. That excavation, the quartet’s plan to silence a grave calling—a phenomenon whereby those buried improperly call out to their living family—yields disastrous consequences. Shamans shouldn’t play with dead things.

Exhuma, while dense, is pulpier and more kinetic than The Wailing, bearing more in common with Park Hoon-jung’s The Witch and The Witch: Part 2: The Other One (its real title, yes). Genre audiences feeling constrained by horror that too regularly pulls its punches should know that Exhuma mounts scare after scare, growing bigger and more gonzo throughout its 134-minute runtime. That density accounts for why Exhuma, needing to maintain its pace, makes a gruesome shift midway through. I won’t say more, but it could easily be described as a contemporary brethren to James Wan’s Insidious. While not quite as tonally disparate, Exhuma is two movies in one, an expositional prequel and an inferno of a sequel. One part is liable to work better for audiences than the other, but I loved both.

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Cultural specificity yields a surfeit of striking horror imagery, whether that be Nure-onna slithering in remote graves or Onibi, Japanese ghost lights, smoldering through the night sky. Scares become sparser as the movie exhumes the fragments of a much bigger story, but the scaffolding of weirdness is refreshing in a sea of genre content that doles out the same big bad time and time again.

Exhuma is thrilling, bold, and ceaselessly surprising in its excess. A strong central cast unearths comedy, tragedy, and carnage in equal measure. Its more commercial and genre elements might hamstring the broader implications of its scares, but Exhuma is the most fun you’ll have playing with dead things all summer.

Exhuma debuts on digital June 4.

  • Exhuma
4.5

Summary

Exhuma is an inferno of sensational scares grounded in tragic history.

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