As the horrors of World War II continue to resonate throughout our collective memory, writer/director Ben Parker mines that time period for his historical action/horror film “Burial,” and finds an original concept within that well-known milieu.
Using a framing device set in London in 1991 that reminds us of the ways in which Nazism still permeates throughout the culture, Parker tells the story of Anna Marshall (Harriet Walter), an older woman who captures a skinhead intruder in her home. He’s heard a rumor about what she was doing at the end of the war, when she was a Russian intelligence officer known as Brana Vasilyeva (Charlotte Vega). With the intruder sufficiently immobilized, Anna decides to share her story.
Despite the weighty themes and political questions, “Burial” is a straightforward narrative about a group of Russian soldiers with one job to do: transport a highly sensitive package from Berlin to Russia for Josef Stalin. Every night, they have to bury this crate in the ground as they camp, unaware of its contents, just knowing that Stalin needs to lay his eyes on what’s inside. It’s not long before they’re waylaid in rural Poland after an attack by a mysterious sniper, and the situation spirals out of control when a few members of their group splinter off to slake their thirst for booze and celebration.
The dangers they face are manifold: first there’s the rumor of the “werewolves” in the forest, Polish villagers dressed in animal skins using basic concepts of theater and powerful hallucinogens in order to disorient and attack their prey. There’s also whatever’s in the box, which could not be more valuable, politically, at this moment. As their progress grinds to a halt in the forest, battling werewolves and rogue Nazis, Brana finds a reluctant ally in a villager, Lukasz (Tom Felton).
What unfolds is a good old action shootout, inspired in many ways by Western tropes. It’s brutal and exceedingly bloody, as one would expect from this kind of lean genre picture. But “Burial” is also packed with meaty philosophical questions about gods, monsters and men at war, and it’s exceedingly well-executed. The cinematography by Rein Kotov is beautiful, capturing the forest and firelight, and the effects are refreshingly practical, both within the story and throughout the film — well-deployed smoke and costuming can go a long way, for both the “werewolves” and the filmmakers.
Though at times the simple plot sags, the story moves quickly and the action never stops. Tasked with delivering the film’s final word, the great Harriet Walter is chilling in relaying the power of the “memento mori.” The phrase, from Latin, serves as a reminder that we all must die, that we are human and that monsters who inflict genocide, or skulk in the trees, and even the war heroes, are all just human, for better, and often, for worse. Nothing supernatural could be as terrifying as some of the things that human beings are capable of, which history has proven again and again, almost daring us to repeat it.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:35
How to watch: In theaters and on demand/digital Friday