Frightfest presents Post Mortem, book festival tickets here.
Post Mortem is undoubtedly a milestone, not for its outstanding quality but its place as Hungary’s first feature horror film. While it may sound unlikely that it took till 2020 for a Hungarian horror film to appear, it is worth noting that the horror genre was frowned upon in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe until the late 1980s. The genre viewed as a morally derogatory product of western culture. Nevertheless, there have been some less notable Hungarian attempts within horror. For example, there was the badly aged 1977 tv movie Defekt; plus we have seen memorable horror-esque sequences in films like György Pálfi’s Taxidermia (2006) and Árpád Sopsits’ Strangled (2016). Yet, these films always carried another genre’s narrative elements or aesthetic approach.
In a post-war Hungarian countryside, where Spanish flu continues to claim new victims, Tomás (Viktor Klem), a World War I veteran, earns a living as a post mortem photographer. But when he finds himself invited to a small, haunted village by a strange little girl, Anna (Fruzsina Hais). His photography takes a detour as he finds himself investigating a poltergeist-like supernatural phenomenon that threatens the everyday lives of those in the village.
READ MORE FROM FRIGHTFEST HERE
For a horror debut, Post Mortem brilliantly picks both its premise and its setting. After all, there is something otherworldly and unsettling about the idea of post mortem photography, a topic barely depicted in gothic horror. Anyone who has seen those strange and haunting pictures of deceased adults and children surrounded by their families will know exactly what I mean. Therefore it serves as a perfect horror concept, especially within scenes that depict the day-to-day treatment of corpses as they are posed for photos. Here the film excels as a spine-chilling horror as dead limbs are stretched and moved despite their rigor mortis.
However, the sheer strength of the topic often feels underutilised. Here themes inherent in the photography lack exploration, even on a meta-level. For example, there is a missed opportunity to tie the photography to the very nature of filmmaking. And this could have added layers of interest to Post Mortem. But, there is a great emphasis on the bleak and muddy countryside surrounding a village embedded in hopelessness and death—the colour tones almost black and white, resembling the gloom of a Béla Tarr film.
READ MORE: BRAIN FREEZE
While the first half works well, emphasising its atmosphere and short sharp scares, the more we learn, the more plot holes and clichès we encounter. By the end, it feels like the filmmakers have let go of the idea of creeping supernatural horror in favour of a final extravaganza that is spectacular but hardly necessary. And while the visual elements of this climax are impressive and, I dare say, unprecedented for a Hungarian film, some of the special effects feel incomplete.
Yet, Post Mortem’s most significant inconsistency comes from the filmmaker’s inability to decide whether they wanted to create a serious, depressing or, suitably scary horror film. While at the same time, problems with pacing only highlight this confusion—the final movie, at least half an hour too long for its plot device. Here the finale runs into an age-old problem in modern horror as it replaces the story with mindless chaos that fails to pique the audience interest. The slow burn horror, replaced by a Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson inspired horror-comedy gorefest without the laughs. Unfortunately, this discrepancy heavily undercuts the otherwise perfect combination of post-war gothic melancholia, eerie imagery, Eastern European folklore and superstitions.
READ MORE: BOY #5
The central relationship of the plot, Tomás and Anna, also feels let down by the film’s overarching confusion. The actors, never allowed to fully embrace their characters – especially Fruzsina Hais, whose mannerisms are far too adult in construct. Equally, the stunning ensemble cast never has enough screen time to shine. Unfortunately, the result is a film that bites off more than it can chew. And while I have a strong feeling, the filmmakers hoped to create something genuinely explosive and memorable; a breakthrough horror in Hungarian cinema. Post Mortem fails to redefine the genre or place anything new or noteworthy on the table. Its authentic setting and gothic horror theme, ultimately ruined by the increasing need to adopt an American horror aesthetic. But, while this is without a doubt a disappointment, hopefully, it motivates others and opens up opportunities for better attempts.