Out of all the things relating to graveyards and final resting places, exhumation stands as one of the most unsettling. It breaks the sacred concept of eternal rest. To unbury a corpse is like breaking a spiritual contract, a violation of earned peace. Understandably, ghosts that are forcibly brought back to the world of the living return angry. And angry ghosts make for great horror movies. Enter Jang Jae-hyun’s Exhuma, a story that features some of the most terrifying restless spirits in recent times, most of which are tangled up in a complex web of Korean history and blood-soaked secrets.

Exhuma follows a group of spiritualists that includes a Korean shaman and her protégé (played by Kim Go-eun and Lee Do-hyun respectively), a geomancer (played by Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik), and a mortician (played by Yoo Hai-Jin) who are hired by a wealthy Korean American family to lift a curse they believe is targeting their newborn form six feet under. The group discovers that the grave they’re supposed to exhume is possessed by a darkness that produces its own omens as to who or what lies beneath it. It is immediately apparent that some things should just stay buried, but this realization comes after the fact.

Death follows the exhuming after certain protections are tampered with, bringing with it an even deeper evil that the crew underestimated the power of. Generational secrets out come to collect lifetimes of blood, and national controversies tag along to conjure up a few ghosts of their own.

For full enjoyment of the story, a bit of homework should be encouraged to better understand the metaphors at play. More specifically, one should take a glance at the Japanese presence in Korea during the 19th century and the controversial accusations that stemmed from it, some of which remain unresolved to this day. It makes the movie unique in its use of history as a well of horror. It’s a bountiful source that produces hideous ghosts, and what they stand to represent speaks to a kind of national mysticism that still troubles those who remember.

This adherence to the past permeates throughout, down to the title. No matter the grave, no matter the corpse, what gets unearthed comes attached to things that are aching to punish those who attempted to forget them in the first place. To convey this, director Jang Jae-hyun essentially made two movies in one, each belonging to separate spirits that might be connected to each other by the same history.

The first part of Exhuma, which is already divided into chapters throughout, has the pacing of a thriller. Exhuming graves requires specific timing and a good read of the environment surrounding them for signs of spiritual danger. There’s a sense of urgency here that isn’t all that common in horror, where the slow burn has become the norm. It’s somewhat strange, but it hits all the right notes. As the geomancer and the shaman try to keep a seal of protection around the exhumed coffin, the risk of failure raises the stakes of the ritualistic endeavor and gives way to a cat-and-mouse chase filled with macabre visuals.

Jang Jae-hyun’s decision to keep the scares fast but raw does sacrifice a bit of dread as there’s less time to let certain sequences sit. That said, once an exhumation goes wrong, a rapid succession of violent encounters follow to keep viewers on edge. Paranormal violence is vicious and shocking, setting the tone for the second half of the movie where dread does get a chance to settle in for the remainder.

The geomancer takes the lead in this part. He’s the oldest member of the group and the character that’s most concerned with the meanings behind individual grave sites and the stories they hold. It makes sense given the more direct historical focus of the second half of the film. The ghost that dominates this part embodies such ugliness and such hatred that the story needed to slow down to fully appreciate its presence. The first half of the movie is good, but the second one soars. And it comes with one of the scariest paranormal scenes I’ve seen in a while.

Exhuma might ask viewers to come in with a bit of background knowledge into it, but it’s a story that rewards those in the know with the kind of terrors we watch these movies for. This is one of the finest examples of a horror film using history to disturb audiences. It’s original and experimental even, especially in regards to pacing and how it seamlessly manipulates tension as the movie progresses. As it does all this, it also manages to present, develop, and further metaphors on the things a country buries to avoid dealing with. Simply put, Exhuma is a new horror classic. Do your homework and watch it.