Resting the dead can be a restless business. In a surprising divergence from the calm and collected depiction of undertakers — for it must be suggested that they are well-versed in death or are Death itself — the one in Argentina’s La Funeraria (also known as The Undertaker’s Home) at times can be tense and turbulent. Hard not to be, frankly, when by day he sees people in need of his services and by night he sees people who are already six feet under.

Such is the life of Bernardo (Luis Machín), our undertaker, and also that of the two women in his life, second wife Estela (Celeste Gerez) and stepdaughter Irina (Camila Vaccarini). In a refreshing spin from the usual family-facing-phantoms tales, director-writer Mauro Iván Ojeda has given everyone the ability to sense the paranormal and from there, conjure the drama. Bernardo would regularly communicate with his father, who likes to leave messages on windows, late into the night, which means the bed he shares with Estela becomes chilly, to say the least. Irina holds out hope that Bernado’s place will make her late dad manifest himself, otherwise grandma’s house is the place to be since she has no love for Bernardo. Estela, in contrast to both, harbors annoyance as she realizes that, for her to have the domestic harmony she is seeking, what Bernardo and Irina would like the afterlife to deliver must show up.

Where Ojeda falters, is in fleshing out these novelties, displaying comfort when they are discrete units and awkwardness when they have to interact. As a result of the latter, the story’s more impactful beats lose a lot of force upon delivery. Viewers may also struggle to see the characters beyond their basic strokes — in order of man, woman and teen: aimless, spiteful and unruly when the capacity (and what is envisioned) are tortured, indifferent and dispirited. It must be noted, though, that Machín saves Bernardo (even if barely) from the lesser end of his characterization through his performance, particularly in the quieter moments.

If the shortcomings don’t stem from the drama direction or characterization, the culprit would be in the subtitling that would either be too literal with certain words or adhere to the Spanish grammatical structure. It’s common to find yourself a moment behind in comprehending and reacting to findings, as a result.

Still, when it’s time to scare, La Funeraria musters the chills. There is again the sinister long-take house tour that introduces the spaces and faces, but under Ojeda’s control it feels new. He’s not just showing off his filmmaking skills here, he is aligning our eyes with an apparition’s. It can be the father of Bernardo. Or Irina’s. Somebody else entirely. Whomever it is, you don’t feel safe, because the direction fuses threat to the unseen and a most-menacing score from Jeremias Smith further amplifies it. To be frank, the music is more effective in setting off mental alarm bells than the sights of weighty coffins no longer where they were originally — in other words U-Haul-ed by demonic forces. Yes, the film’s agents of chaos also include one demon, so don’t be surprised when a medium, Ramona (Susana Varela), is called. Yes, Ojeda does have a spin for this genre mainstay, too; Ramona can do more than just giving the house a cleanse. Her presence also signals that more supernatural happenings are on the way.

That’s a good thing, for in La Funeraria what frightens the residents is always more noteworthy than what estranges them. Despite this uneven debut, Ojeda imprints on us a sense of anticipation for a follow-up where, perhaps, the plot promises only horror.

Rating: ★★★

 

Directed by: Mauro Iván Ojeda

Written by: Mauro Iván Ojeda

Cast: Luis Machín, Celeste Gerez, Camila Vaccarini, Susana Varela

 

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