I love horror. It’s a genre with a lot of wiggle room and a surprisingly high bar for quality, particularly to seasoned horror fans. In recent years, it’s been gaining new attention as a vehicle for nuanced, original stories (Jordan Peele, auteur and horror darling, springs to mind with “Get Out” and “Us”). While horror with Jewish overtones is difficult to come by, Christian-based horror is rife with Jewish actors and directors (presumably because we’ve seen the devastation firsthand), and what better time than the start of the Halloween season to explore old favorites and find new ones?
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
What a film! Based on a book of the same name by Ira Levin, “Rosemary’s Baby” is a disorienting classic ostensibly about demon babies, but more so about the terrors faced by pregnant women in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The real monster, it seems, is Rosemary’s husband (and director Roman Polanski), as he minimizes and dismisses Rosemary’s legitimate pain and concern about the safety of their child. This is a lush, nerve-wracking character study of an intelligent woman reduced to a vessel for a baby whose nature is unknown.
“The Exorcist” (1973)
This is another classic film rich with Christian iconography by another Jewish director. William Friedkin’s iconic take on the story of a little girl possessed by a demon is so scary that theatergoers reported fainting, vomiting and even alleged heart attacks from terror. I’ll admit, I’m a decently tough sell on classic horror, and I was sweating bullets. Classic films become classic for a reason, and “The Exorcist” is a masterclass in special effects and truly terrifying child acting.
Ari Aster’s breakthrough film is a lot. It follows a deeply dysfunctional family after the death of the matriarch, and the horrible events that transpire. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can’t look at Toni Collette the same anymore, and Alex Wolff absolutely shines in a serious role. It’s a sweaty, uncomfortable film that lingers.
Really, anything by Franz Kafka is a worthy investment, but this film based on his book “The Metamorphosis” remains perhaps his most well-known work. Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find himself not a man, but a giant insect. It’s a sad, grotesque tale of an isolated man who longs to unburden his family, skirting quite close to Kafka’s own feelings about himself. It’s another grim classic to send a nervous shiver down your spine.
“The Golem” (2018)
To round us out, this is a more recent film with a distinctly Jewish subject (as previously reviewed by JewishBoston here). “The Golem” is an Israeli period horror about a woman named Hanna who creates a golem to protect her family’s village from invaders. The plan, however, backfires, and Hanna must confront her grief to save her people and herself. This is another creepy, inhuman child story, but with a nuanced tilt regarding what makes us human.
There are, of course, so many other films I haven’t mentioned, but the classics are always a good place to start. Jewish influence in horror is everywhere, and the oft-maligned genre may be, in fact, only misunderstood.
What are your recommendations? Let me know in the comments!