Schlocky Horror Picture Show
The Possession, starring Matisyahu, fails to live up to the potential of Jewish horror films
Ulmer’s erstwhile colleague Curt Siodmak supplied Universal with the most popular monster of the early ’40s, namely the Wolf Man. (“Images of devolved animal-men, often possessed of the wolfish traits prized by the Nazis, were striking facets of horror pictures during the war years,” film historian David J. Skal notes.) Siodmak also came up with the story for Son of Dracula (1943), a grimly flavorsome movie—directed by his brother Robert—that reversed The Black Cat’s premise. In the first Universal horror film to be set in the United States, a triumphalist, lebensraum-seeking vampire sets out to infect innocent America with his Old World contagion. Robert Siodmak made no further horror films but he did reference Hitler in his two subsequent movies: In Cobra Woman (1944), the sinister dance performed by the sarong-wrapped dictator of Cobra Island (Maria Montez) is greeted with an unmistakable sieg heil salutes, while the killer in Phantom Lady (1944) is a megalomaniacal artist who links himself with the great criminals of history.
While Jewish comic-book artists contributed mightily to the horror comics of the early ’50s, some of which specifically alluded to the Holocaust, it was not until the ’70s that notable horror films by Jewish filmmakers begin to appear. William Friedkin directed The Exorcist in 1973, a year before Mel Brooks travestied the genre with Young Frankenstein. Throughout the decade, David Cronenberg created a mode known as “body horror.” In 1980, Stanley Kubrick made The Shining (a movie that some exegetes have read as a Holocaust allegory and others as a movie referring to the Native American genocide); two years later Steven Spielberg produced Poltergeist (which, in its original cut, explicitly evoked the massacre of Native Americans). Schindler’s List uses the formal language of the horror genre as developed by Hitchcock’s Psycho. More recently, Eli Roth, who played the Bear Jew in Quentin Tarantino’s Holocaust fantasy Inglourious Basterds, has made a career out of cheap, purposefully vile shockers (Cabin Fever, Hostel, Hostel II), and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan has a number of horror and Jewish elements—including the generational conflict that was the motor of much American-Jewish drama.
Black Swan draws heavily on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). A child Holocaust survivor, Polanski has made only one movie on the subject, The Pianist, but, in addition to Repulsion, he has directed several horror films: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), a singularly bloody version of Macbeth (1971), The Tenant (1976), The Ninth Gate (1999), and most significant, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The Fearless Vampire Killers paraphrases a famous Jewish joke—someone turns a cross on a vampire only to be taunted “Es vet dir gornisht helfen!” [that’s not gonna work]—while Rosemary’s Baby is a kind of dybbuk in reverse: The heroine is not possessed by the spirit of her dead lover but by the devil’s child; rather than exorcise her, an Upper West Side coven headed by a Jewish doctor ensures that her pregnancy will come to term.
What about the version of An-Sky’s Dybbuk made in Poland in 1937? It’s a bit of a stretch to call this stately drama a horror movie, although the 1979 telefilm of the An-Sky play, made with the State Yiddish Theater in Warsaw, had a definite whiff of Transylvania, as when the possessed protagonist appears to be serenaded by a werewolf while stumbling through a foggy graveyard. As steeped as it is in the past, An-Sky’s Dybbuk does suggest that, for Jews, horror is less supernatural than historical and communal. The primal fear that The Dybbuk evokes is not simply the terror of demonic possession but also of excommunication. Even the dybbuk is frightened by the possibility of being cut off from his fellow Jews for all eternity—a terror that only works in a Jewish context.
The Exorcist not only terrified the world at large but had a deep and sustained meaning for Catholics, observant or lapsed. A shock closer notwithstanding, Possession is highly unlikely to make a comparable impression on Jews. By objectifying Jews as exotic others rather than presenting them as subjects, the Raimi production eliminates the precise element that would have been most powerful for a Jewish audience: We are possessed by our dybbuk, however you want to allegorize it. Clyde’s anxiety and the tension within his broken home would have been immeasurably heightened if his family were confronted with a repressed aspect of their own past. The movie would have been stronger still if that were a shared heritage—Jews haunted by a lost tradition or the burden of Jewish history.
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