In the abstract, giving The Exorcist a found-footage update for the 2020s sounds tedious, but The Medium manages to feel freshly upsetting & emotionally engaged while never drifting outside those genre boundaries. It helps that the film was produced by Na Hong-jin, director of 2016’s The Wailing – the last great Exorcist-scale possession horror to rejuvenate the genre. In the early stages of development, Na proposed that Thai filmmaker Banjong Pisanthanakun collaborate with him on a direct sequel to The Wailing (presumably on the strength of Banjong’s breakthrough hit Shutter), but the concept gradually spiraled out into its own unique horror epic separate from that source of inspiration. Considering the limitations of its initial concept, the general over-saturation of body-possession & found-footage horror media, and its 30-day shooting schedule, The Medium is impressively massive in its scope & imagination. This is big-scale blockbuster horror achieved on a scrappy indie budget, and it still manages to be scary as hell.
The Exorcist looms too large in horror iconography for any possession story to avoid the comparison, but The Medium does more to stray from Friedkin’s genre blueprint than simply exporting it to international religious contexts outside the original’s Catholicism. Stretching its legs with a 131min runtime helps create enough space for the film to distinguish itself from that ancestry, as does its modern-documentary framing device (which obviously triggers its own preloaded horror canon comparisons). We get to know the mockumentary’s subjects for a long while before the supernatural terror escalates to a fever pitch, which helps lay a solid emotional foundation most modern horrors don’t bother building. It’s the story of a small family in the rural region of Isan, Thailand, whose women pass down the spirit (and professional occupation) of a shaman through generational inheritance. While the current shaman’s niece seems to be inheriting that spirit as the next natural successor, it turns out the spirit taking root in her body is something much more sinister. Deadly hijinks ensue, despite the shaman-aunt’s best efforts to exorcise the unwanted presence from her innocent niece’s body.
For all its ambitious scale & intimate familial drama, The Medium is most impressive for its efficiency in delivering every possible genre payoff it can squeeze into its spacious runtime. It attempts eerie atmospheric dread and cheap-thrills jump scares. It genuinely engages with the emotional drama at the core of its spiritual inheritance story and indulges in squirmy cultural taboos that would turn off most horror naysayers. It’s also not afraid to invite comparisons to iconic touchstones of the found-footage canon – including the shaky-cam nature runs of The Blair Witch Project, the night-vision security footage of Paranormal Activity, and the vertical smartphone aspect ratios of the genre’s current “screenlife” era. Still, it throws so much supernatural mayhem at the screen in its go-for-broke third act that it manages to do things I’ve never seen in any found footage movie before, especially in the way its possessed victims directly, violently interact with the camera crew & their equipment. The actual possession half of its hybrid-genre is less surprising in its execution, but it’s remarkably upsetting & brutal all the same.
I’m glad we were gifted The Medium instead of The Wailing Part II: Possession Boogaloo, as initially planned. Then again, I would’ve also been skeptical of the final product’s “found-footage Exorcist” premise had I not seen the results. This is one of those shining examples of how little a movie’s chosen genre template actually affects its overall quality. It’s all in the execution, and this particular Exorcist deviation is executed with both fury & elegance.