Argentina’s haunted house movie has plenty of atmosphere, but feels underwritten.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.)
If you can stomach certain unavoidable aspects of it, being an undertaker doesn’t seem all that bad a job. No one’s ever happy to see you, but they’re always grateful for your work. You’ll never have to worry about your job being outsourced overseas, or replaced by automation. Best of all, it’s quiet — unless, of course, some of your customers decide they aren’t ready to leave. Such is the case in Mauro Iván Ojeda’s The Undertaker’s Home, a movie that has the potential to become the next big find on Shudder, but falls just a bit short.
Luis Machín plays Bernardo, who runs his family funeral home business with all the enthusiasm of someone whose job it is to muck out construction site honey buckets. He lives in a house attached to the funeral parlor with his even more unhappy wife, Estela (Celeste Gerez), and Irina (Camila Vaccarini), his sullen, ungrateful teenage stepdaughter.. They’re miserable together from the minute we’re introduced to them, and that’s one of the primary issues with The Undertaker’s Home. Clearly inspired by Hereditary, it tries to be a movie that’s at least as much about grief and the specter of dysfunctional parents as it is about the supernatural. As opposed to the earlier film, however, we get no sense of these people as a real, loving family that’s trying to keep their demons at bay.
Instead, the air around the characters, particularly Bernardo and Estela, is so thick with animosity that you wonder what brought them together in the first place. Estela seems to need Bernardo more than she loves him, and she rewards him for his work with near-constant complaining and baiting him into arguments. It makes one long for movies like Poltergeist, where the audience becomes attached to a family and their warm, believable dynamic, making what they experience all the more disturbing.
Clearly inspired by Hereditary, it tries to be a movie that’s at least as much about grief and the specter of dysfunctional parents as it is about the supernatural.
The ghosts of some of Bernardo’s clients occasionally haunt the house, which the family has grudgingly learned to live with, under the guidance of medium Ramona (Susana Varela). The latest round of haunting, however, seems to be with something more malevolent in mind. Mocking notes are left around the house, and bruises begin appearing on Estela’s body. Everyone seems to have their own idea of who this new ghost is, but it turns out to be something far worse than they could have imagined.
The Undertaker’s Home is a frustrating movie to review, because it has all the components of a good old-fashioned haunted house flick. It’s got scary music, bumps in the night, things hiding in the shadows. Despite the fact that they’re all playing simply awful characters, the three leads put in strong performances. It’s clear that Ojeda loves horror movies, and took a lot of what he’s seen and applied it to his work.
The problem is that a lot of ideas are floated, but almost none of them are followed through. The idea of a funeral home director simply learning to live with ghosts is a clever, interesting idea, but here it’s just sort of thrown out there and not really developed in any meaningful way. Nor is Estela struggling with the trauma of a prior abusive relationship, or Bernardo attempting to communicate with who might be ghosts of old girlfriends.
Though it would have been compelling to see more of the mundane aspects of it, we only see Bernardo undertaking at the beginning of the film. It also goes unexplained why the funeral home itself is so shabby, where caskets are stored outdoors near a Port-a-Potty, and chickens run free around the property. It seems like it should mean something, but nothing comes of it. So much time is spent on the family sniping at each other that you find yourself not so much asking “What’s with all these ghosts?” as “Why do these people hate each other so much?”
You can’t say The Undertaker’s Home doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere, however. The excellent score by Jeremias Smith does a lot of the heavy lifting, and you might never want to enter a Port-a-Potty again after watching this. It’s a lot of good parts that don’t entirely come together for a cohesive whole, but, given more time to develop what are some genuinely fascinating concepts, Ojeda could have a considerable future in horror.