Post Mortem – Review

Written by Piros Zánkay

Story by Gábor Hellebrandt and Péter Bergendy

Directed by Péter Bergendy

2020/115mins/Hungary

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The dead outnumber the living.

Surviving the Great War, Tomás finds himself amidst the deceased in an open grave following an explosion which should have claimed him. Mistaken for dead, it is only after the observations of a superior officer that he is spared a horrific and grim fate. But in those moments after the explosion as the life flickered out of his eyes, the image of a young girl kept Tomás from passing over. And now, a postmortem photographer for grieving families, Tomás encounters this young girl again – but this time she has a request.

In the aftermath of war, and a decimating influenza outbreak, Anna’s humble village is a tormenting residence where the dead outnumber the living, and in the inhabitant’s own words ‘the land is overrun by ghosts.’ Taking her up on this offer to visit her village to help in solving the mysteries surrounding it, Tomás finds that the veil of life and death is opaquer and easily crossed than he realised. In the bleakness of an especially harsh winter, the ground remains frozen, and the deceased remain among the living. Unable to bury the dead, Tomás takes the opportunity to photograph the deceased. But gradually it reveals the village is in the hands of these unfriendly ghosts, and Tomás is keen to understand why.

Noted as Hungary’s first true feature horror to be presented overseas (though this is not strictly true), Post Mortemis a monumental success in places, and a well-respected entry into the country’s cinematic history. Sharing elements of Makoto Shibata’s Fatal Frame series, of a photographer able to capture the spirits amongst them with their camera, Post Mortem has no shortage of spectres and phantoms haunting it is near two-hour runtime. But these scares, and this rich atmosphere, wholeheartedly earned, are let down by the film’s sole issue.

Tone is an overarching thorn in Zánkay’s direction – a pity given the ubiquitous strengths it presents throughout the film otherwise. Post Mortem has a distinct taste for the macabre, and the talent to pull off an otherworldly and harrowing grasp of grief and torment – somewhat spoiled as it gains a taste for the obvious horror a touch too early. Much of the framework and suspenseful filmmaking is better suited for a psychological aspect, one which the film capitalises on, but all too quickly wishes to barrage past to insert awkwardly placed sub-plots and the more visually impressive, but on-the-nose horror scares.

Given the scarcity of the genre’s bigger-budget productions from the nation, the setting offers a freshness for audiences – the of a rural Hungarian post-war village. And as such, we beseech readers to opt for the sub-titled version of the film, rather than the quite poorly dubbed version into English. The Hungarian command of language is far richer and offers a more authentic sense of presence for Zánkay’s script, as evidenced by the discrepancies in Viktor Klem’s more intense physical performance, than the dub’s limited vocals. It is not until the genuine sense of fear sets in that the performances follow suit, some often feeling more comedic than suspenseful before the horror sets in.

There is a tighter connection with the imagery and cinematography, however, and a more distinct respect when listening to the film in its mother tongue. The echoing screams conjure a more visceral sense of fright when erupting from the village homes or sunken earth. There is a void of colour throughout Post Mortem, and the rich crispness of the brilliant white snow contracts the significantly darker and moodier palette used through the film’s night sequences. It is claustrophobic at times, András Nagy’s cinematography understands the genre far better than the scoring and scripting allow.

In its mother tongue, Post Mortem has a genuine sense of dread, but its dubbed performances let down an otherwise atmospheric piece on the grief and loss following illness and the Great War. It is still a welcome change from the shlock of the perpetual Hollywood Horror machine, with authentic frights and atmosphere certain to keep audiences from looking at their photo albums until after New Year’s.

Genuine Sense of Dread

Post Mortem is available for Digital Download from October 31st.

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