One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 56
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
One could easily imagine a chatty aunt or kvetching mother criticizing the whole of Jewish cinema with the proclamation that serves as Reel Streaming’s headline this week.
Though Judaism doesn’t generally have the representations of Hell and the Devil that one finds in Christianity, there’s still all manner of dark Jewish mythology, superstition and mysticism in the breeze out there (Kabbalah, anyone?). Those thousands of years of otherworldly beliefs have made their way into a spirited collection of Jewish-themed horror movies. And a number of golems, dybbuks and mazziks, as well. No, those are not the ingredients for some kind of exotic break-fast dish, but rather the supernatural beings that haunt these Jewish fright flicks.
Here are seven movies that have the power to get under the skin of some Jewish movielovers, just as The Exorcist did to many a Catholic cinephile. They’re all worth considering for cinematic noshing or, if you have a desire to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, as the creepiest of seasonal holidays arrives.
The Golem (Paul Wegener, 1920)
The granddaddy of Jewish horror films—and frequently acknowledged as the source of the Frankenstein myth—is the German silent film The Golem. It was inspired by the Jewish folktale of a 16th Century rabbi who used sorcery to create a giant clay warrior to protect his people from persecution. That’s all well and good, until the titular lumbering monster runs rampant, slaying townspeople, setting fire to the ghetto and abducting the rabbi’s daughter. That’s right: the trope about a hulking giant stalking off with a damsel in distress in his arms dates back to the German silent era!
The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967)
Shortened from its original title, The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, Polanski’s comedy-horror film about an aging hunter of the undead and his goofy assistant (a bumbling Polanski!) on the lookout for vamps in 19th century Transylvania remains a lot of fun. The notorious filmmaker’s only out-and-out comedy (peppered with lots of not-so-scary moments of horror) finds Polanski’s late wife Sharon Tate in fine comedic form (the pair met on this film). Jack MacGowran plays a Jewish bloodsucker whose response to a cross thrust into his face is, “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!”
A Serious Man (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2009)
The Coen Brothers parable of 1970s suburbanite Larry Gopnick’s Job-like descent into grief and suffering isn’t as disturbing as the film’s opening scene. Set in a 19th century Eastern European shtetl, A Serious Man’s Yiddish-language prologue features a married couple who encounter a neighbor whom the wife believes has been dead for days. Surmising the neighbor is a dybbuk—a malicious spirit who has risen from a deceased soul—the determined wife goes to town on him with an ice pick in an attempt to kill him again, an action which prefigures Gopnick’s problems 100 years down the line.
The Possession (Ole Bornedal, 2012) and The Unborn (David S. Goyer, 2009)
Both of these supernaturally-flavored Hollywood horror films take on the myth of the dybbuk and the hell it raises (literally) until the dybbuk is exorcised from the body it possesses. These are respectable, contemporary offerings with fine performances by their leading ladies (Odette Yustman in The Unborn and Kyra Sedgwick and young Natasha Calis in The Possessed), along with a generous allowance of “jump scares” for audiences looking for less subtlety and more malevolence.
Hanukkah (Eben McGarr, 2019)
Yarmelke-wearing Obediah Lazarus, believing he is following the commands of a higher power (just like the psychotic killers who stalked such holiday horror cult favorites as Christmas Evil in 1980 and Silent Night, Deadly Night in 1984), raises all sorts of murderous hell during his own favorite holiday, the Festival of Lights. Hence, his moniker: The Hanu-killer! Oh, and in the name of God, Obediah carves a “Scar” of David into the chests of his victims.
A low-budget, old school-styled crazy killer movie a la Friday the 13th (Friday’s composer Harry Manfredini also provides the music here), this one’s for low-budget shlock-shock lovers who never thought they’d live to see an honest-to-God Jewish slasher flick. This one affectionately features appearances by late horror icons Sid Haig (The Devil’s Rejects) and Dick Miller (Bucket of Blood), as well as scream queens of yesteryear P.J. Soles (Halloween) and Caroline Williams (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II).
The Vigil (Keith Thomas, 2019)
The debut feature from writer-director Thomas follows Yakov, a young lapsed Orthodox Jewish man, tasked with serving as a “shomer”—a kind of guardian who watches over the body of a deceased person until burial, according to Jewish law. Over the course of an interminably long evening, Yakov keeps vigil over the body of a former Holocaust survivor in Brooklyn, only to be targeted by a nasty demon spirit known in Jewish mythology as a mazzik. (Think dybbuk, but one that’s looking for a lot more trouble and not just a quick haunting.)
A very atmospheric and effective effort that’s primarily set in a creaky Williamsburg home, The Vigil proved to be a fine calling card for its maker, who is currently putting the finishing touches on his second feature, a new version of the incendiary 1980 Stephen King novel Firestarter.
More than most, The Vigil really mines the elements of Judaism to create a genuinely scary vibe. And while there aren’t all that many examples of the Jewish faith serving as the engine of a horror subgenre, there’s still some fun to be found this season.
If you really think this is fun, that is.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.