Right off the bat, in Argentinean writer and director Mauro Iván Ojeda’s ghost story, we know that the ghosts are real. At his home mortuary, an undertaker, his wife, and his stepdaughter are heedlessly plagued not only by the spirits of the corpses taking up temporary residence in their very abode, but by the spirits of their own pasts as well. It’s an interesting approach to the tired-and-true haunted house horror show, while the film is less about the spirits that haunt the undertaker and his family and more about the demonic dysfunction of their own lives. But Ojeda’s very literal approach to crafting his first feature film ends up working against his favor, as underdeveloped characters and an emphasis on telling instead of showing make The Undertaker’s Home quite the undertaking.
For Bernardo (Luis Machín) and his family, ghosts are a part of daily life, but they’re taking a toll on his family’s already shaky mental health. As Bernardo currently houses the body of his recently-deceased father in preparation for burial, his wife, Estela (Celeste Gerez), takes medication and reels from the death of her abusive husband while her daughter, Irina (Camila Vaccarini) still both mourns and idolises her late father, unwilling or unable to accept his violent truth. Irina’s relationship with her mother and stepfather is tenuous at best, and she threatens to leave them to live with her paternal grandmother — though, only after she can finally catch a ghostly glimpse of her father in their home. Their home had been previously been examined by a medium named Ramona (Susana Varela), who deemed their bathroom the most spiritually off-limits place at night in terms of encountering entities, though it’s emphasised that the ghosts cannot hurt them.
The bathroom bit is just one aspect in an array of oddities that make the self-serious film bordering on parody, as it should be noted that this forces the family to use an outdoor porta potty at night. Even the basis of the film itself is hard to take seriously, as the mundanity of this family’s encounters with ghosts acts like more a comedic premise than a dramatic one. When it’s eventually revealed that a malevolent and potentially deadly entity has entered their home, and their lives depend on exorcising it, the stakes are not even high enough for the demonic threat to feel truly lethal.
Bolstered nonetheless by solid performances from a committed cast and a dedication to crafting a genuinely evocative atmosphere, the film is, however, woefully unfocused, underdeveloped, and over-expository, nearly every bit of vital information delivered via long-winded dialogue. Even the ultimate reveal of the malicious entity’s origins ends up slightly comical because of how much effort has to go into explaining it, let alone the reasoning not having nearly enough groundwork for it to feel earned. The overly literal ghosts thus become bogged down by the overly literal *gestures vaguely* everything else going on in the movie. Nothing is left up to interpretation, nothing for the audience to chew on, everything is spoon-fed and thus robs the narrative of any real emotional weight or even terror.
Though it’s clear that the collective trauma of this family is more harmful to their wellbeing than any spirit or demonic entity, the emotional crux of the film is lost in a haze of overbearing exchanges, general absurdity, and the film’s apparent inability to trust its own audience. The Undertaker’s Home is, ultimately, a fresher take on the familiar Haunted House trope, but its execution holds it back from being something that’s genuinely haunting.
The Undertaker’s Home enjoyed its World Premiere at the virtual edition of Fantasia Festival 2020 on August 21st, it screened again on August 26th
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs