Hungary has a lot of folklore, but no tradition of horror filmmaking. Billed as the country’s first full-on horror films, this hedges its bets slightly by also being a carefully-crafted period piece which sometimes dawdles on its way to powerful effects. It almost works like a pilot for a series, introducing a unique occult detective duo, but whenever it strains for serious content it gets a bit creaky. That said, it has an enormous number of good things and some of the most startling supernatural sequences to come down the pike in a while.
In 1918, German photographer Tomás (Viktor Klem) is knocked down on a battlefield by a bomb-blast and perhaps blown temporarily beyond the veil – where he glimpses a girl looking down at him. After the war, he becomes a travelling post-mortem photographer, specialising images of the posed dead as mementos for their loved ones. The disturbing details of this real-life historical profession are presented with a kind of queasy fascination as Tomás powders and rouges the dead, then forces their stiff limbs into ‘natural’ poses, often using complicated armatures. With the Spanish flu epidemic raging – prompting a few 2020 nods involving sack-over-the-head masks – there are more than enough customers to keep Tomás in business. While working in a carnival, he is visited by ten-year-old Anna (Fruzsina Hais), the girl of his vision, who persuades him to come to her remote village, where the dead are acting up. As he is troubled by glimpses of ghosts on his photographic plates and out of the corner of his eye, Tomás tries to work out just why there is so much poltergeist activity in the region. Some ghosts take to puppeteering corpses of the recently dead in increasingly elaborate macabre tableaux.
Klem and Hais make a great team, establishing a bond between the war-damaged veteran and the weirdly phlegmatic orphan that gives us something to care about in a film that otherwise treats its victims as puppets – often to disturbing ends. We get a huge variety of corpses and ghosts – scuttling shadows, a mangled-neck husband, a zombie-faced little boy, invisible forces that shatter buildings, a woman shoved up a chimney – and the film does eventually draw them all together for a set-piece finale. Written by Piros Zánkay, Gábor Hellebrandt and director Péter Bergendy.