Having survived being blown up and a near death experience on the battlefield in the dying days of the Great War, Tomás (Viktor Klem) travels the frozen Hungarian countryside as part of a travelling fair, offering solace to the bereaved families of recent victims of the Spanish Flu by acting as a post mortem photographer, posing the recently dead with their loved ones for a final cathartic portrait.

Drawn to young orphan Anna (Fruzsina Hais) who he recognises from his near death vision and lured by the promise of a lucrative pay day, he returns to her village with her which is in the grip of the epidemic, the ground too frozen to bury the dead. But Tomás’ camera captures more than just the bodies of the dearly departed. Shadowy figures lurk in the frame, vengeful figures who want something, need something. As supernatural forces attack the villagers, Tomás and Anna use his photographic and sound equipment to try desperately to communicate with the dead, to find out what they want. But they may not like the answer…

Every year at FrightFest a film will unexpectedly soften my shrivelled little heart and make me ugly cry like a prison snitch bitch. Last year it was the sweet, affecting A Ghost Waits. The year before it was the Adams Family’s brilliant The Deeper You Dig. This year it’s Péter Bergendy’s haunting Hungarian ghost story Post Mortem, a film that’s every frame drips with dread, melancholy and, surprisingly, hope.

While macabre on the face of it, Tomás and his camera bring comfort and closure to families still reeling from the loss of loved ones and, though unsettling, there’s a sweetness and an artistry to the way he conducts his business, arranging and making up the corpses to appear as lifelike as possible, applying rouge, combing hair, hiding injuries with scarves, posing them with their family or making them look like they’ve just dozed off, his profession fascinating Anna, a smart, inquisitive girl who seems confined by a life caring for an elderly, infirm aunt. With his polished boots and his high-tech (for 1918) camera equipment, Tomás is practically an avatar of the 20th century, come to save the villagers from superstition. But ultimately, it’s Tomás who’ll be saved by the villagers and by Anna.

Billed as Hungary’s first horror film (I’d argue Nimród Antal got there first with 2003’s Kontroll), Post Mortem is a creepy, wonderfully atmospheric, slow burner of a ghost story. Gorgeously shot with a wintry lens, Bergendy’s direction is tight and controlled, his scares restrained and low key, building slowly but steadily in intensity to the adrenaline-pumping climax, the scene where Tomás and Anna try to capture the voices of the dead with a phonograph, cameras and an intricate system of bells is a particularly tense joy that will have you on the edge of your seat.

The performers are uniformly excellent and the relationship between Tomás and Anna evolves naturally from curiosity to friendship to something deeper, two lost souls seeking companionship. Looking like a young Paddy Considine there’s a warmth and affability to the charismatic Klem’s Tomás while as Anna the wonderful Fruzsina Hais gives a knowing, measured performance far beyond her years that raised the hairs on the back of my neck in much the same way Jennifer Lawrence did in Winter’s Bone; she’s simply stunning. A likable pair of unlikely ghostbusters, Tomás and Anna’s growing surrogate familial bond is the heart and soul of Bergendy’s film but Post Mortem is more than just a ghost story, it’s a portrait of a community recovering from tragedy, from the turmoil of war, from the horror of a global pandemic.

Creepy, thrilling and affecting, Post Mortem is a haunting little ghost story.

Arrow Video Frightfest Review: Post Mortem
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