Exhumation is one of the key functions of the horror genre: digging up those dark, hidden parts of the unconscious and exposing them, in all their unsettling ugliness, to the light. it is a process which is literalised in Exhume, the feature debut, as writer/director, of Scott Poiley, who in the past has written and produced Anthony DiBlasi’s Cassadaga (2011), Missionary (2013) and Last Shift (2014), makes excavation of one kind or another his principal theme. Husband and wife Patrick (William Haze) and Karen Connor (Alex Rietveld) are hired for their respective expertise in archaeology and forensic science to search a former Probation Camp for Boys in Florida. Their Christian employer (Randy Molnar), who spent his own childhood in the camp as son of the late warden, wants to sell the now derelict property on, but the elderly sister (Marty Stonerock) of a boy who decades earlier went missing from the Camp insists that the entire place first be searched thoroughly for his body – and a prologue to the film, shot in black and white from the point of view of a terrified young prisoner, confirms that this was a place whose Christian guards were horrifically abusive, even murderous.
So there is a grim history haunting this place for the Connors, with their teenaged daughter Emma (Sarah Sculco) reluctantly in tow, to uncover. Besides the many acres of ground that they must survey, there are also more psychological terrains to explore, as the troubled Emma, who has inherited a propensity to sleepwalk from her father, and mental illness from her mother’s side, is not sure whether the irrational things she is starting to see and hear are a product of her own fracturing psyche, or of the property’s buried secrets. Patrick and Karen worry about the deterioration of Emma’s mental state, until they too begin to sense the presence – and to dream the ghostly point of view – of a ghost determined to play hide and seek.
Atmospheric and very creepy, Exhume is quick to undermine its opening textual claim to be ‘inspired by true events’ with all manner of supernatural interventions, as the Camp’s revenants reveal themselves in uncanny graffiti, upsetting dreams and even phone cameras, while taking possession of young Emma as the vessel for their own vindictive resurfacing. Of course, we all know that there is a genuine underlying reality to any scenario that involves the covering up of child abuse at Christian institutions – but what is perhaps most disturbing and uncomfortable about this film is not the horrors that took place at the Camp (shown in oneiric flashback), but a bizarre plot twist that serves to exonerate, even justify, such abuse.