If you’re sick of finding pandemic parallels in everything, no need to worry about Péter Bergendy’s period horror “Post Mortem,” the Hungarian Oscar entry. It manages to avoid saying anything about our current moment despite being set during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, when that virus was well on its way to killing 50 million people globally. Worry instead that, as good as it looks with its fun special effects and promisingly creepy premise, this oddly un-scary ghost story is going to devolve into a hopeless muddle: Can a horror-movie village ever just be too haunted? It would seem it can.
There is a clever idea nestled in the film’s bleak setting, however. At the end of the then-unprecedented loss of life occasioned by the Great War, with a pandemic raging, it’s quite believable that unquiet spirit activity might be at an all-time high. The constant death rate is certainly enough to keep ex-soldier Tomás (Viktor Klem) in business as a post-mortem photographer, who takes painstakingly primped and posed shots of the recently deceased, so their relatives can have a keepsake.
That unflappable Tomás is not squeamish about touching, and in some cases prying, the rigor mortis-ed limbs of his dead sitters into position, is perhaps because he himself has had a brush with the beyond. He’d been left for dead on the battlefield, when a vision of a young girl brought him back and he was plucked from the heap of corpses by an older soldier (Gábor Reviczky).
Six months later, Tomás and the soldier are part of a traveling carnival, in which the old man embellishes Tomás’ afterlife experience to tell to rapt audiences, while next door, the younger man plies his ghoulish trade. Then Anna (Fruzsina Hais) shows up, and suddenly Tomás is being asked to come to her hamlet by the town elders, in order to photograph the many corpses that are still awaiting burial there, given the ground is frozen solid. Tomás agrees, but mainly because Anna is, of course, the girl from his vision.
It’s frankly a weird relationship. The strapping foreign photographer and the 10-year-old orphan girl interact in unsettling ways that do not seem intentional but are perhaps a by-product of clunky, misjudged storytelling and some rather wooden performances. As if to try to dismiss any potential inappropriateness, a sort of love interest is hastily ginned up in Marcsa (Judit Schell), the widow with whom Tomás stays while in the village, but it’s undernourished and barely convincing, especially when so many of Tomás and Anna’s scenes have a peculiar undercurrent that can only really be described as romantic. Thankfully, though, there isn’t too much dwelling on such matters as pretty soon Tomas’ photos are picking up ghostly shadows skimming across the walls, weird noises ring out at night and the fingers on the town’s many corpses begin to twitch.
This place has been beset by ghosts for some time to the point that some townspeople wear scarecrow sacks over their heads as protection. And the supernatural activity only increases with Tomas’ arrival. Soon he and Anna, like the Ghostbusters of WWI-era Hungary, are investigating the many strange somethings in the neighborhood: levitations, reanimations, mysterious water sluicing down walls, scorchmarks on the chests of the dead and the actual murder-by-ghost of an elderly neighbor who is for some reason stuffed up her own chimney.
DP András Nagy’s crisply composed photography goes some way toward classing up the silliness, more so anyway than the generic descending string drones of Atti Pacsay’s horror-by-numbers score. And the special effects, especially those on the lo-fi end, work well: There’s a nice line in finding new ways for a body to bend, so that people turn briefly into ragdolls to be grotesquely flung around by malevolent whatsits. But after a while, even the best-rendered poltergeist sequence becomes humdrum if there’s no sense that we’re ever going to understand why these spirits are acting this way — except because it looks cool.
At times, the overkill provides unintentional comedy, as when four characters have simultaneous separate violent hauntings in different parts of the same house. Or when some poor background unfortunate is staggering around on fire between houses from which unseen forces drag people out like they’re the excessive runtime of this ultimately wearisome movie.
It all comes down to a lack of atmosphere, despite the evident investment in scrupulous production design. Perhaps that scrupulousness is part of the problem: Along with Tomás’ distractingly modern haircut, it’s the very precision of the period detailing that makes “Post Mortem” feel like a tourist-theme-park vision of the past. And even a town overrun by the dead should feel more alive than this one.