Movies · Reviews

‘Exhuma’ Goes Digging for Big, Fun Horror Movie Thrills, and It Strikes Gold

Reason #74 why cremation is better and smarter than burying a corpse in the earth.
Exhuma
By  · Published on March 15th, 2024

If you ever find yourself burnt out on a favorite film genre coming out of Hollywood, you’d do your head and heart well to seek examples of it elsewhere. Tired of the same ol’ studio action pictures getting recycled each year? Check out the brutally entertaining action films from South Korea. Bored of what constitutes a rom-com these days? Go watch one from South Korea that dares switch tones on a dime from the sweetly comedic to the devastatingly sad and back again. Over the dull predictability of religious horror movies steeped in Christianity? Pop in a slice of spiritually themed terror from South Korea, and prepare to be caught up in the glorious spectacle where sincerity meets savagery. For those left unmoved by the latest Exorcist cash-grab, seek out Exhuma. Immediately.

Two shamens, siblings Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun) and Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun), are brought to Los Angeles to help a family of ultra-rich Korean immigrants who believe their newborn son is being targeted by a supernatural threat. The pair suspect it’s an angry calling from beyond the grave, and with the help of a geomancer and a mortician back in South Korea, they set about relocating the corpse of the family’s great grandfather to settle his soul. Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik) and Young-geun (Yoo Hae-jin) are happy to help knowing a big payday awaits, but something feels amiss almost as soon as the remote earth over the dead man’s bones is disturbed.

Exhuma is a big, thrilling, richly detailed piece of folk horror with atmosphere, scares, and personality to spare. Writer/director Jang Jae-hyun chases his two previous films, the religious horror movies The Priests (2015) and Svaha: The Sixth Finger (2019), with a meaty genre tale weaving historical atrocities and supernatural beliefs into fantastical entertainment. We get detailed rituals and a richly layered belief system alongside ghostly chills and monstrous decapitations, and the resulting concoction is a fun genre treat that keeps on giving right through its numerous endings.

There’s a lot of screen time to fill at over two hours, but Jang and his cast ensure things move at a steady pace as we ramp up to something spooky or horrifying, ease back with characters we’ve come to love, and then dial it back to eleven again. Don’t be surprised or disappointed when the ghostly antagonist is dealt with barely halfway through as Exhuma has something even more unsettling and thrilling waiting in the wings — well, in the dirt, anyway — that sees the story grow in unexpected ways. There’s trauma here, pains felt by individuals and country alike, but rather than wallow in it the film bets big and delivers with a tangible terror that’s genuinely frightening and cool on arrival.

The core ensemble cast kills it as they go toe to toe with evil, and all four of them bring undeniable charisma and charm to their roles. Eternal sidekick Yoo is a reliable source of smiles while Lee manages to smolder even as he bounces from the casual to the sinister. Choi is the veteran here, and as is always the case, he gives a strong, stellar performance as a man balancing between his beliefs and his bank account. Kim steals the show, though, as an energetic young shaman who sees her confidence shaken by what transpires. It’s a captivating turn built on showmanship, respect, and real fear. You’re going to worry about all four of them until the end credits hit.

Exhuma might feature generational trauma and terrifying acts of violence, but it’s not a heavy horror film. There are no emotional threads left wiggling at viewers by film’s end as it’s instead a movie looking purely to entertain. That’s not to suggest it’s disrespecting or misrepresenting the beliefs of its characters, and if anything, its embrace of those very beliefs is what makes the thrills all the more compelling and entertaining. It’s less The Exorcist (1973), and more The Pope’s Exorcist (2023), and while that might be a turn-off for those of you wrong in the head, it’s a very good and welcome thing indeed.

To that point, while the details of the story can feel a bit dense at times, the pieces are in place for a reason. The journey moves viewers from the ghostly to the monstrous with meaning and history behind the horror, and while there are thought-provoking elements at play here there’s also a desire to deliver big, creepy, gory, beautiful thrills. That desire becomes reality resulting in genre entertainment that’ll leave you engorged and plenty satisfied. Horror fans in general should seek it out, but those of you who count yourself as fans of the likes of Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2017) and Tetsuya Nakashima’s (still unreleased in the U.S.) It Comes (2018), run don’t walk to Exhuma immediately. I think you’re really gonna dig what it’s throwin’ down.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.