Argentinian horror is enjoying a bit of a moment, with Terrified scaring the pants off Shudder audiences and The Bar making them laugh and scream in equal measure while, just a few years ago, the lively throwback Crystal Eyes gave giallo movies a new lease of life with a distinctly tongue-in-cheek South American twist. In their wake comes The Undertaker’s Home (or La Funeraria in the original Spanish), a ghost story with bite and verve that makes Insidious look like the garbage fire it actually is – it even has a shot that echoes the supposedly terrifying Darth Maul jump scare from that hugely overrated movie, only this time it’s genuinely scary.
As the title suggests, The Undertaker’s Home takes place entirely within the walls of a funeral home, with a creepy tracking shot familiarizing us with the layout of the property before the film kicks off proper. Corners loom in darkness, shadows dance on the walls and, on one door, a sign is hung that reads simply “Do not enter at night.” This is already a creepy place, run by a man who makes his living dealing with death, but Luis Machín’s Bernardo is a kindly, gentle sort who’s just trying to make a nice home for wife Estela (Celeste Gerez) and her grumpy teenage daughter Irina (Camila Vaccarini), a kid that’s constantly on the phone to her paternal grandmother, and is thus always on the verge of leaving.
The problem is that the dead just won’t stay that way. They keep communicating with Bernardo and, to complicate matters, he talks back. This is a clever twist on a tired trope because it negates the usual fuss over whether or not Irina is seeing things, leaving more time for actual scares, of which there are plenty. Her mother and stepfather believe that she’s experiencing something paranormal, because ghosts are just an accepted part of their daily life in the funeral parlor. The crisis comes from whether Estela and Bernardo can convince Irina to stay and be a family, possibly putting her life at risk in the process, or if she’s going to flee, leaving them in danger (particularly if her abusive, deceased father is hanging around as Irina suspects he is).
Paranormal stuff is so tired at this point that it’s truly remarkable just how much juice The Undertaker’s Home gets from such a simple setup. Consider the fact that we already know the place is haunted, so writer-director Mauro Iván Ojeda starts off on the back foot because he has to crank up the tension immediately and keep it tight for the best part of 90 minutes. Messages from the dead are presented in condensation on the windows, a neat trick that’s played first for sweetness and then gradually curdles into something more frightening. There’s also a horrifying moment when it seems like ghost sex might be on the cards, which is presented in just one shot from behind of a character standing naked and waiting.
These are some properly scary spirits and they look completely horrifying both as walking corpses and full on demons. Scary hands abound in The Undertaker’s Home, which seems like a strange thing to compliment a movie on, but they’re utilized so effectively it’ll make you double-check every closed door from now on. Keeping something like this, which is restricted to a single location, consistently spooky and intense is no small feat. Even the lively Silent House, a remake of a limp Uruguayan film featuring a then largely unknown Elizabeth Olsen, eventually resorted to plain ol’ human interference to explain its ghostly noises. Here, the threat is assuredly paranormal and it’s to Ojeda and his small cast’s credit that it consistently feels like a threat, too.
Of the central trio, Vaccarini is the standout as Irina, even though a strange choice involving her towards the end hits a major bum note and feels as though it belongs in an entirely different movie. Vaccarini imbues the teenager with enough precociousness and bad faith towards Bernardo that we understand Irina is immature, but her essentially good nature shines through too, like when she acknowledges her stepfather isn’t actually a bad guy. Gerez is terrific too, as an abuse victim who just wants to settle down, while Machín is believably torn as Bernardo, a man who can’t quite make his two opposing worlds exist in harmony but is trying his best nonetheless.
The Undertaker’s Home is packed with great scares, shot through with a sense of dark, almost grey foreboding, like there’s a veil of fog hanging over the house, and gets surprisingly rough and violent once things inevitably begin to escalate. It’s a shame it ends on such a strange note, but regardless this would make a helluva double bill with Terrified for anybody in the mood for some proper, bone-chilling frights.
WICKED RATING: 7/10