Frightfest presents Post Mortem, book festival tickets here.
Post Mortem is undoubtedly a milestone, not for its outstanding quality but for 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. Here the genre was viewed as a morally derogatory product of western culture; however, there have been some less notable Hungarian attempts at horror, from the poorly aged 1977 tv movie Defekt to horror-esque sequences in films like György Pálfi’s Taxidermia (2006) and Árpád Sopsits’ Strangled (2016).
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 detours as he finds himself investigating a poltergeist-like supernatural phenomenon that threatens the everyday lives of those in the village.
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For a horror debut, Post Mortem excels in 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. Post Mortem, therefore, 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 bathes in spine-chilling horror as dead limbs are stretched and moved despite the rigor mortis.
However, the strength of the topic often feels underutilised, the themes wrapped in the photography lacking any exploration, even on a meta-level. For example, there is a missed opportunity to tie the photography to the very nature of filmmaking which could have added layers of interest to Post Mortem. However, there is a great emphasis on the bleak and muddy countryside surrounding a village of hopelessness and death— here, the colour tones are almost black and white, resembling the gloom of a Béla Tarr film.
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While the first half works well in emphasising its atmosphere with a series of short sharp scares, the more we learn, the more plot holes and clichès we encounter. By the finale, it feels like the filmmakers have let go of the idea of creeping supernatural horror in favour of a Hollywood-inspired horror spectacular. And while the visual elements of this climax are impressive and, I dare say, unprecedented for a Hungarian film, some of the special effects also feel incomplete.
Yet, Post Mortem’s most significant inconsistency comes from the filmmaker’s inability to decide whether they want to create a serious, depressing or suitably scary horror film. Here the pacing only highlights this confusion with the final movie, at least half an hour too long for its limited plot. The result is a film that replaces its slow-burn horror with a Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson-inspired horror-comedy gorefest missing the laughs. This discrepancy heavily undercuts the otherwise perfect combination of post-war gothic melancholia, eerie imagery, Eastern European folklore and superstition.
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While I strongly feel that the filmmakers hoped to create something genuinely explosive and memorable, a breakthrough horror in Hungarian cinema, Post Mortem fails to bring anything new or noteworthy to the table. Here its authentic setting and gothic horror theme are ultimately ruined by the increasing need to adopt an American horror aesthetic. But, while this is undoubtedly a disappointment, hopefully, it motivates others and opens up opportunities for better attempts.