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South Korea’s current box office champion multiple weeks in a row, Exhuma, offers an unexpected and entertaining take on folk horror. While dense in lore and spiritual worldbuilding, the latest horror offering from writer/director Jae-hyun Jang (Svaha: The Sixth FingerThe Priests) balances its grim, sometimes bloody folkloric terror with levity and heart. Anchored by four “ghostbusters” of sorts, with charismatic actors behind them, the intricately woven Exhuma delivers one of the year’s biggest surprises in horror so far.

Exhuma hits the ground running with an introduction to Shaman Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun) and her close protégé Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun, “Sweet Home“), arriving on a flight to Los Angeles. They have been summoned by the ultra-rich Park Ji-yong (Kim Jae-cheol) for a well-paying gig helping him rid his infant son of a supernatural curse. Hwa-rim traces the curse back to South Korea, where they enlist colleague and geomancer Sang-deok (Choi Min-sikI Saw the DevilOldboy) and mortician Young-geun (Yoo Hae-jin). The foursome’s investigation leads them to an unmarked grave on an isolated mountainside. Despite ill omens and reservations on Sang-deok’s part, Hwa-rim convinces the group to proceed with the job. Of course, excavating the grave unleashes an evil none could have predicted or are prepared to stop.

Exhuma grave

Jae-hyun Jang breaks the story into chapters, which is a helpful move considering just how ambitious this dense narrative becomes. Superstition, spirituality, and rituals kick off the strange chain of events. But the more revealed about the mysterious grave, and the more horror it unfurls, the more Jae-hyun Jang digs into his heady metaphor of historical horror and how the past has shaped and divided the present. It’s not homegrown horror here, but commentary on Korea’s residual trauma and tenuous relationship with Japan and reckoning with its ghosts.

The initial Korean family curse serves as the inciting event, but it’s also a trojan horse for a far more effective type of folk horror that generates no shortage of potent, innovative imagery. The type of imagery that instantly evokes an intoxicating blend of awe, repulsion, and intimidation. Supernatural horror has rarely been this cool or as wild; Exhuma features one of the coolest new horror movie monsters (of sorts) to come along in a while, but you’ll have to be patient getting there.

The wait is helped by a few supernatural freakouts and a palpable, relentless sense of dread. Most of all, it’s the complex and affable protagonists. Tenured talent Choi Min-sik serves as the deeply superstitious voice of reason. From the outset, Sang-deok senses something deeply amiss with the grave site, and his expertise and experience are invaluable to the team. Yet he’s not solely defined by his geomancy; he is a fully realized character that quickly endears to audiences. Yoo Hae-jin frequently brings the levity, and Lee Do-hyun serves as the beating heart, driving his allies forward in the increasingly precarious fight. However, the film belongs to the Kim Go-eun. Hwa-rim begins as a steely, confident and powerful Shaman, well connected to the supernatural realm and key in containing the evil. Once Hwa-rim realizes she faces forces beyond her expertise, fear shatters that confidence and sparks an engaging underdog arc that culminates in a thrilling third act.

Exhuma Kim Go-eun

The first act’s approach to folkloric horror and cleansing rituals calls to mind South Korean horror movies like The Wailing. But Jae-hyun Jang quickly shift gears, broadening the horror to also include possession, ghost induced scares, and a physical manifestation of past historical trauma in the most gonzo way. The type that will leave you cheering for “sweetfish and melon.” It’s occasionally violent and bloody, always atmospheric, and stunning in cinematography and composition. While its story is so dense that it threatens to run away from the filmmaker at moments, the extremely likable characters and a sense of horror fun ensure it never derails, right up to its thrilling finale.

Jae-hyun Jang combines introspective cultural and historical themes with creepy, gory, and atmospheric horror thrills in an exciting way. It’s fun horror with a lot on its mind. That’s a tricky thing to achieve, and the cast and crew of Exhuma make it look effortless.

Exhuma released in limited theaters on March 15 and is expanding across North American theaters on March 22.

4 out of 5 skulls

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