Bernardo (Luís Machín) lives in a certifiable house of horrors as an undertaker constantly dealing with the dead. In the opening The Undertaker’s Home (La Funeria) from Argentinian director Mauro Iván Ojeda, a lengthy tracking shot takes us through the desolate recesses of his domicile that just radiates darkness and decay. To make matters worse, he is harangued by a handful of vengeful spirits — not to mention the terrors he faces in the realm of the living trying to parent his moody stepdaughter Irina (Camila Vaccarini) with wife Estella (Celeste Gerez).
The divide between Bernado’s mortuary business and his home life, much like the divide between the living and the dead, is never quite so clear. The dead at least seem far easier for them all to deal with — he has no idea how to discipline Irina for her angry outbursts, and Irina still mourns her dead father despite his abusive treatment of Estella, while refusing to accept the flesh-and-blood Bernado before her.
The plot set-up of an undertaker haunted by much more than his deceased clients is a familiar one, yet this story gives plenty of dimension and anguish to its human characters to make their foibles, failings, and family drama still intriguing to follow. And don’t worry — there are plenty of actual ghosts that pop up to always keep audiences on their toes. These spirits initially seem more like playful poltergeists than anything else — occupying the bathroom which forces the family to use a port-a-potty, outside, for instance — but soon start to seem more threatening and nefarious. The film never moves beyond the confines of Bernardo’s property, inhabiting the shadows and forcing confinement in this space where there is an uneasy compromise, and increasingly hostile battle, between the various tenants.
While it may seem that what they really need is some family therapy, instead they turn to a shaman named Ramona (Susana Varela) to help them exorcise their demons. The flickering lights and appearance of mysterious messages from spirits signal something strange is afoot even if nobody seems quite sure what. Lucas Timerman provides the crepuscular cinematography, with some impressive camerawork and lengthy tracking shots through the titular haunted undertaker’s house. The art direction from Martín Conti provides a gloss of Gothic glamor, while the sound design from Pablo Isola and an appropriately spooky score from Jeremías Smith help flesh out this soundscape with echoes and ominous emissions of sound — we can see each shadowy crevice and hear every creak.
The gloomy visuals and the eerie atmosphere help smooth over some gaps in the plot — yet the story can occasionally feel a bit hollow or cold underneath the glossed-up facade, much like a corpse prepared for a funeral. This is not really a tale about the supernatural as much as it is about specters of family dysfunction and multi-generational trauma — and this look at family trauma is, for lack of a better word, rather familiar, as we do not get to fully dig into the deeply buried emotions they are grappling with. For instance, Irina still idolizes her father — Estella’s abuser — and terrorizes her mother by constantly bringing this memory of violence back. Estella is obviously anguished, but her daughter makes little attempt to empathize, and Bernardo seems too skittish to get in the middle of things. There is some profound potential here to explore how pain is perpetuated even long after the violence has subsided, and how we can inadvertently hurt the ones we love by not acknowledging what’s terrifying us. Yet much like the ghosts, who leave only vague notes and condensation on windows to indicate their presence, too much goes unsaid and under-explained.
While it feels a bit like we are watching a story unfold in a painstakingly designed Victorian dollhouse, with its script too underwritten or overly ambiguous to hit us with life-size force, the film has enough in the way of bewitching production design and trance-like cinematography to enchant. It won’t quite scare the life out of you or shake you awake from your coffin, but The Undertaker’s Home is a ghost story with flair, and is a commendably stylish and sumptuous debut feature that leaves us waiting to see what might emerge next.