“Exhuma” Is a Frightening Grave Filled With Too Many Secrets

Stephen King introduces his 1983 classic Pet Sematary with two haunting truths: “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret.” In the west, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the former – what will happen when we die – but little time on what will become of the mortal coil we leave behind. But every culture has their burial rites, traditions that have evolved over time to honor the bodies of the dead and the spirits that depart them to places unknown. Jae-hyun Jang’s Exhuma follows a team of South Korean shamans and geomancers as they try to reverse a decades-old curse tormenting a wealthy family. The film is an exciting and spooky exploration of the boundary between the living and the dead, but the overstuffed story turns over a few too many gravestones along the way. 

Shaman Hwarim (Kim Go-eun) is called to the bedside of a newborn son tormented by a curse attached to his wealthy family. As Hwarim and her partner Bong Gil (Lee Do-hyun) interview the clan, they discover a sinister secret lurking in the grave of the family’s long-dead patriarch. Hwarim enlists the help of geomancer Kim Sang Deok (Choi Min-sik) and mortician Ko Young Geun (Yoo Hae-jin) on a quest to rid this family of their vengeful spirit. But there are more sinister secrets lying in this unholy grave and by trying to put a ghost to rest, they may have awoken an ancient monster. 

Exhuma is a fascinating exploration of Korean history and folklore, bringing ancient legends and decades old conflicts into the modern age. Go-eun studied with real Korean shamans to accurately portray the series of rituals we see her perform throughout the story. This dedication to detail pays off and Jang films these sequences with an intimacy that makes us feel as if we’re witnessing the rituals ourselves. Go-eun delivers a captivating performance, deftly navigating a tricky role. Though surrounded by ancient tradition, her youthful vigor infuses the rituals with life and adds an air of realism when moments later she reverts to a modern young woman just as skilled with a witty comeback as she is with a ceremonial blade.  

These rituals are paired with impressive special effects and haunting creature design. The first ghost to emerge from the exhumed grave haunts his family with shadowy menace and an uncanny ability to control their every move. These are some of the film’s most haunting scenes as this eerie monster attempts to fulfill a decades old grudge. A second specter is equally terrifying, pulling the film into a new realm of terror. We thought we were frightened by the sinister ghost of a long-dead businessman, but soon our heroes find themselves squaring off against a seven foot ghoul hellbent on domination. Jang wisely keeps his monsters mostly in the shadows, heavily hinting at their details, but allowing our own fears to do at least half of the work. Many supernatural films fail due to unconvincing entities and Exhuma does not skimp in the ghost department. 

Unfortunately, Jang doesn’t skimp on the story either and Jang’s script often feels bloated and busy. At over two hours, Exhuma functions as two distinct movies. Perhaps shortening the first story to make room for the second would benefit the overwhelming plot. One could also see the story split into two separate films, an introductory ghost story and a spectacular sequel. What we get is an abrupt shift near the halfway mark that refocuses the plot and shifts the tone. Both halves are compelling and scary, but we eventually become lost in the lore. By the film’s exciting climax, it’s difficult to remember exactly what’s going on and it feels like we end up miles away from where we started. 

The slightly convoluted plot is redeemed with a strong and likable cast. The four spiritual warriors form a sort of makeshift family and some of the most touching moments occur when they are able to relax and share a meal. It’s in these spaces that we grow connected to this team of non-traditional ghostbusters and begin to feel the stakes of the curse. They stand in sharp contrast to the wealthy family that first commissions their work. These Korean American monarchs may have every luxury, but their fortune has been built on betrayal. No amount of money can buy the kind of happiness our ragtag team has found in each other. 

Exhuma fires on all cylinders with a strong cast, an interesting approach to folklore, and a spooky creature design. The only problem is the more is more approach akin to ordering everything on the menu at a five star restaurant. There are two fantastic films here and audiences may do well to simply watch this horrifying, but overstuffed film in two separate sittings. 

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.