Horror movies that offer genuine surprises and jaw-dropping shocks can be hard to come by. The Medium, a Thai-Korean production that arrived on Shudder last week, is one of those movies you’re best not knowing much about when you sit down to watch — but suffice to say it has both of those sought-after qualities in spades.
As we begin, the film is styled as a documentary titled Shaman Bloodline, following a woman in Northern Thailand named Nim (Sawanee Utoomma) who is “possessed,” as she calls it, by a goddess named Ba Yan. It’s a calling that’s long been passed down the female bloodline of her family, and it mostly means she serves her community by helping cure those suffering from “unseen” (as opposed to medical) ailments, including but not limited to those caused by black magic. It’s not the life she chose — the life chose her — but it seems peaceful enough. Lots of praying, lots of counseling, lots of strolls in the woods. That’s just the first of many carefully plotted misdirects that unfurl over the course of this two-hour film from Thai writer-director Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter) and South Korean producer Na Hong-jin (The Wailing). It takes a little while to get going, but then delivers one of the absolute wildest final 30 minutes of any horror movie in recent memory. You think they tossed “black magic” in the opening and weren’t going to deliver on it later? Not. A. Chance.
As filming on Shaman Bloodline progresses — from time to time, we get title cards to explain what’s happening when the scene changes; we also hear an off-camera voice asking questions during interviews — the crew follows Nim to her brother-in-law’s funeral, where she greets her semi-estranged sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan) and Noi’s twentysomething daughter Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech). There’s been tension between Nim and Noi ever since Noi, Ba Yan’s first chosen vessel in this generation, rejected her inheritance and converted to Christianity, thereby forcing shaman duties on Nim. That’s not the only bad blood in the family’s past, and Nim casually drops a ton of tragic history during one of her interviews — facts framed as a way to get to know her better, but viewers who pay close attention will be rewarded when The Medium begins its shift from straightforward documentary into full-on found-footage horror, complete with shakey-cam and creepy green night vision.
At any rate, the crew of Shaman Bloodline decides to stick around Nim’s extended family once it becomes apparent that the pretty, vivacious Mink, who’s started acting oddly and complaining of strange physical pain, is being readied to serve as Ba Yan’s next shaman. Pure documentary gold in the making! Or, it sure seems that way — to Noi’s annoyance; she didn’t want to be a shaman and she doesn’t want her daughter to be one, either — until everyone starts to think that Mink’s deteriorating condition might be caused by a different sort of spiritual transformation.
For a found-footage film, The Medium is more elegantly shot than most — it helps that it’s ostensibly being made by a professional documentary crew, a gimmick that also helps audiences who aren’t well-versed in Thai culture get a window into its intriguingly unfamiliar setting. The acting is both naturalistic and, when necessary, completely over-the-top; Gulmongkolpech in particular is equally as convincing as a bright-eyed party girl and a dead-eyed monster. And the special effects range from subtle yet distressing to full-on, stomach-lurching splatter.
To go into too much detail about The Medium’s twists would deprive the viewer the fun (and terror) of watching them happen, but let’s just say this movie does not shy away from any taboos. Nothing is sacred, and nobody is safe, not even Shaman Bloodline’s intrepid cameramen. Once you’ve unclenched your jaw and other body parts after witnessing The Medium’s outrageous finale, you’ll see why it was a summer hit at the Korean box office. It is not for the faint of heart. But horror fans on the hunt for a gruesome treat this Halloween will not be disappointed.
The Medium is now streaming on Shudder.
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