At its core, horror can act as escapism from the mundanity of life, thrilling us with images that we will most likely never (thankfully) see or experience in real life. But how far is too far? When horror skirts the edge of realism, can it go past the point of escapism to realism? One regret that I will carry with me for some time will be that I did not get a chance to attend a physical screening of El Cadáver Insepulto aka The Unburied Corpse. Instead, I viewed it from the comfort of a virtual screening room. Alejandro Cohen Arazi’s debut feature film is on track with the likes of films like mother!, and Antichrist. It is likely to be included on the list of some of the most divisive horror films ever made: you will either love it or hate it. The Unburied Corpse is the type of film that will garner article headlines like, “n number of people walk out,” or “The Unburied Corpse causes moviegoers to faint,” or the more likely headline, “The Unburied Corpse receives 10 minute standing ovation.”
This film affected me in a way that very few have. Arazi’s debut is a depressing, gruesome, cerebral cosmic horror—a love child of Wake in Fright and Jacob’s Ladder. There are so many interesting and different horror elements brought up by Arazi, and each moment is handled with care and expertise. You wouldn’t guess that this is his debut feature film. Some sequences nearly made me physically ill, while others made me tear up and take a deep look into some familial issues that I carry with me.
After the death of his father, a young man returning home to settle his inheritance becomes involved in an occult ritual which reveals a terrifying family secret.
There are many strong moments in The Unburied from Maximilano (Demián Salomón). He brilliantly meshes his charisma and awkwardness to give off a certain boy-next-door who has some secrets vibe. His family runs a slaughterhouse, and he got away from that whole mess at a young age. You will quickly sense some trepidation between him and the family members who slowly start entering the film. He really plays well against Hector (Héctor Alba) for a few reasons, and one reason becomes prevalent towards the end. One of the most brilliant scenes is when Hector goads Maxi into playing a round of chess with him. Maxi’s refined persistence evolves into genius as they play together, giving Hector one of the most emotionally poignant little monologues of the film. The relationship that Maxi carries with each of his brothers is actually really interesting, and the script handles each relationship very well.
One of the more minute details that is only visually depicted is the bracelet that each brother, sans Maxi, wears. They are these gnarly wire bracelets with human teeth woven into the wires; some of the bracelets have many teeth, some have fewer, which is a good example of telling through visuals rather than verbal exposition. A lot of this film revolves around visual storytelling. The script is strong and great—don’t get me wrong, and there are many good instances of aural storytelling, but some of the best scenes of this film are strictly handled visually. My favorite scene of visual storytelling, no spoilers, takes place during a little hunting excursion with some of the brothers, where a very fine aspect of cosmic horror is introduced.
The occult ritual that takes place is the tea kettle on the backburner for majority of this film, and it waits until near the end to whistle. They constantly allude to what they are going to do with their deceased father’s corpse, which, by the way, is rotting away in the seat he passed away in in the dining room. It’s a very foreboding image and idea that is ambiguously handled until it finally pays off with a twist I didn’t see coming from a mile away.
A lot of The Unburied Corpse is ambiguous, which I can foresee bothering quite a few people (hence my reference to mother! earlier), but I think it brings charm to the movie. Throughout, we are given hints—some major hints and some minor background details—that will help you put most of the pieces together for the mystery.
There are only two main things that brought me out of this film a bit. The first one was just some minor issues with subtitling, which isn’t a big deal as long as you’re paying attention and can understand simple context clues. The other thing, though, was a bit more major. Towards the beginning of the film, there is a two or three minute scene that is just raw, uncomfortable, and possibly unnecessary. It made me feel ill and gross, and I think the movie would have stayed just as strong without it…that’s not to say that the scene was not horrific. This leads to my initial question: how far is too far? Can a great piece of art cross the line of good taste, or does crossing the line make it even better? One of the main reasons I have not stopped thinking about this film since I viewed it is that scene in particular. It made me feel things that a horror film hasn’t made me feel in quite some time, if not ever.
The Unburied Corpse is an ambitious debut from an incredibly ambitious director who isn’t afraid to look at the dark aspect of humanity and the many callous acts that humans commit. It’s a film about family while also being a film about self-reflection and how we become who we are via our upbringings. This will be a film that divides audiences, and this will be a film that is remembered in the genre forever.