HANDLING THE UNDEAD: Devastating Slow-Burn Dread

I couldn’t sleep after Handling the Undead

I’m not one of those horror fans who likes to proclaim that horror films don’t scare me. They do, whether we’re talking about the gut-level, visceral in-the-moment scares or the more existential, long half-life scares that creep up on you. I am more than capable of being affected by horror films. The difference comes when a horror movie is able to linger in my head with such presence, such force, that everything else seems to slow down around it. 

That’s a different kind of fear, the patient kind that waits and stalks and haunts, and Handling the Undead had that for me. With a great ensemble, unsettling visual effects, and an atmosphere that’s somewhere between tone poem and Euro horror expressionism, it’s one of the most effective horror films of the year, and if you’re of a certain persuasion it’s the kind of thing that will shake you to your core.

Based on the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, best known for Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead unspools its dreadfully beautiful saga from a very simple premise: What if dead loved ones just walked back into your life? Set in Oslo, the film follows three families who are all faced with this question when one of their own escapes the bonds of death through mysterious means. Anna (Renate Reinsve) and her father Mahler (Bjørn Sundquist) upend their entire lives when Anna’s young son Elias starts knocking from the inside of his grave. Tora (Bente Børsum) is simultaneously grateful and fascinated when her recently deceased partner (Olga Damani) walks back into the home they shared. Then there’s David (Anders Danielsen Lie), who must reckon with a strange, grief-filled limbo as he and his children (Inesa Dauksta and Kian Hansen) learn that their wife and mother (Bahar Pars) sits alone in a hospital after a car accident, hovering in a sudden and inexplicable state of renewed, subdued life.

The mystery of how this happened, let alone why, is secondary to the point. The Norwegian government’s response to the phenomenon is present in the film, but it’s muted, far in the background, as Lindqvist (who also wrote the screenplay) and director Thea Hvistendahl (in a frankly stunning feature debut) focus instead of this trio of families and the ways in which they each respond to the wordless, blankly staring corpses who’ve returned to their lives. 

What’s immediately striking about the narrative is how deftly it balances the mundane with the fantastical. The corpse makeup applied to each undead character, and the ways in which the actors embody their tenuous grasp on consciousness, is convincing and unnerving, but when their loved ones get hold of them, they just want to find a way back into life as it used to be. Handling the Undead is full of moments of horror, yes, but the horror comes not through shambling corpses, but through bathing a child who’s been saturated with grave dirt, trying to feed a dead woman a piece of toast, celebrating a birthday in the shadow of a grief that’s both new and somehow stunted before it’s even started. In depicting these things with a kind of patient poetry, the film shows us not what’s returned, but what’s still absent. 

And that sense of absence, of profound loneliness, might be the film’s greatest trick when it comes to the pure dread of its story. Together with cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth, Hvistendahl fills the frame with voids, from deserted highways at twilight to hypnotic tunnels to the simple vastness of a room that’s now occupied by only one living soul instead of two. It’s a simple but effective visual trick, and then the film takes it further, winding its narrative through the beauty and vastness of a Norwegian summer, with its still lakes and its bright green trees. It’s a decision that leaves the viewer to ponder not just what’s missing from the characters’ lives, but what they’re missing in their laser focus on the impossibility of the corpses standing before them. In that way, Handling the Undead becomes a film not just about grief, loss, and loneliness, but about the things we leave behind when those forces consume us, the things that might save us which we place just out of our reach.

In service to this particularly potent clutch of themes, the cast is phenomenal, particularly Reinsve, who stands as the emotional fulcrum of the film despite only speaking a handful of times over the course of nearly two hours. There’s very little dialogue in Handling the Undead, and Reinsve in particular embodies someone who’s been emotionally stunted and restrained by what’s happened to her, only speaking when she has to, when it’s worth it. It’s a tremendous performance in a film full of them, and serves to underscore her place as one of the most powerful performers in cinema right now. 

All of this exquisite craft, marshaled together by Hvistendahl in a directorial showcase that makes her a filmmaker to watch, creates an emotional maelstrom of slow-burning, impossible to look away from dread. It’s easy, despite the fantastical tropes at work in the story, to imagine ourselves at the core of Handling the Undead, to imagine our loved ones living out some kind of strange half-life in our eager, misguided shadows. In its patient, understated, and deeply careful way, it’s a film capable of conjuring true emotional gut punches in its viewers. That makes it a must-see for horror fans and fans of delicate character dramas alike. Just be prepared to lose a little sleep afterwards.

Handling the Undead is in theaters May 31. 

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