Shudder’s ‘The Medium’ is a slow-burn horror about shamanism

If you thought the documentary horror genre was done, you need to see The Medium.

Streaming on Shudder, it’s the latest from Thai director Banjong Pisanthanakun, who helmed 2004’s Shutter. He has co-written The Medium with South Korean producer Na Hong-jin, writer/director of Cannes Film Festival favorite The Wailing. In their collaboration, the pair play the atmospheric long game, building a sense of dread slowly but surely, then locking audiences in after it’s too late to bail.

Framed as a (thankfully fictional) documentary, The Medium follows a film crew to a small town in the Isan area of northeastern Thailand, where they meet a shaman named Nim (Sawanee Utoomma). She claims to be possessed by a goddess called Ba Yan, who helps locals with blessings and spiritual ailments. For the Isan people, Nim explains, there are good spirits that protect and evil spirits that haunt and cause sickness. When the documentarians ask Nim if she changes her voice or body when possessed by such a spirit, she replies, “You might have watched too much TV. It doesn’t have to be like that.”

If only.

Nim, her sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan), and their brother Manit (Yasaka Chaisorn) become concerned when Noi’s daughter Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech) begins behaving erratically. Once these actions move to a disturbing, withdrawn, and violent level, Nim and her family suspect they’re dealing with something sinister and supernatural. All the while, the documentary team rolls camera.

Noi (Sirani Yankittikan) tries to communicate with her daughter Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech).
Credit: CHRISTINE RAMAGE

The film’s first two acts move at a subtle, simmering pace, but the finale is sheer frightening chaos. It’s a diabolical move from director Pisanthanakun, who lulls audiences into a sense of security before swiftly pulling the rug out from under us. Sitting at over two hours, the film spends ample time with the characters but keeps the momentum through a sense of foreboding — thanks in part to Chatchai Ponhprapaphan’s haunting score. As events escalate, the documentarians’ distance to their subjects becomes compromised while they wonder whether they should try to help Mink. This shift is reflected in a mix of their footage and security camera coverage. And in the well-worn tradition of found footage/documentary horror films like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, The Medium saves the most disturbing moments for last. There’s a scene featuring a Hereditary-level reveal that had me sleepless for days.

To convincingly sell the documentary element, the performances in The Medium need to be exceptional, and they are. In particular, the three female leads, Gulmongkolpech, Utoomma, and Yankittikan, truly shine. As Mink, Gulmongkolpech undergoes a significant physical transformation, taking on the notoriously tough role of a character undergoing possession. (Just ask The Exorcist’s Linda Blair how fun it can absolutely not be.) As the film rolls on, Gulmongkolpech’s physicality becomes simply terrifying, bringing all the vibes of Billie Eilish’s famously creepy When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? album cover.

For her part, Utoomma is quietly powerful as Nim, who follows methodical spiritual instincts while beginning to question her beliefs. She’s given one particular moment when her usual composure is shattered in pure emotional pain. Yankittikan balances her onscreen sister with stubbornness and fierce maternal determination as Noi, not letting anyone tell her what to do in this wildly tempestuous situation.

Nim (Sawanee Utoomma) turns to ritual amid Mink’s symptoms.
Credit: CHRISTINE RAMAGE

Ritual and ceremony play a huge part in The Medium. Pisanthanakun places serious importance on both throughout the narrative, as well as the value of spiritual inheritance, with Nim and Noi piecing together a string of mysterious and tragic circumstances connected to their family. Fair warning, The Medium features some disturbing content. In the same vein as The Exorcist and other possession movies, this film touches on sexual taboos.

If you’re looking for something different from Hollywood’s version of found footage/documentary horror that nonetheless plays within the parameters, check out The Medium. It’s truly frightening in parts, but also delves into family dynamics and the complexities of belief and ritual — and what happens when we question it all.

The Medium is now streaming on Shudder.

While you’re there, we’ve rounded up the best Shudder originals, horror comedies, and the scariest films on Shudder.

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