Shiva Foreva

I recently had the pleasure of taking off an entire week from work to do Nothing – casually filling my time with movies, meals, and household chores instead of cramming those activities into the tight crevices between pushing papers & sleep.  It was a necessary, restorative break from my usual routine, one I’ve been reluctant to indulge in since the pandemic-era version of a “vacation” really just means extended time alone on my couch.  I managed to watch 18 feature films over that 10-day stretch, sometimes cramming in four a day and sometimes watching none at all to make room for “social” activities like podcasting and watching pro wrestling with friends.  As a result, most of the films didn’t have much space to stand out as anything distinctly noteworthy (with the major exceptions of Hackers and Pig), but I did notice some striking similarities shared between a few of the pairings.  Without a doubt, the most highly specific, niche double feature in that week-long binge was Shiva Baby & The Vigil: two incredibly tense new releases set at Jewish funeral rituals.  Neither stood out to me as personal best-of-the-year material the way I hoped.  Still, they were both impressively energetic, nerve-racking debuts from first-time filmmakers, and their shared Jewish funeral rites context only underlined their strengths as a pair.

I’d feel much worse about lumping these two unique, otherwise unrelated films together purely for their shared religious context if that overlap hadn’t already been covered by other blogs (most notably the Jewish outlet Alma‘s post “A New Kind of Jewish Horror Film Has Arrived“).  Shiva Baby in particular suffers the most in that pairing, since the film is already fighting off frequent comparisons as the Jewish, bisexual version of Krisha.  To be fair, Shiva Baby is a lot more similar to Krisha than it is to The Vigil, at least in terms of its tone & genre.  Set at a shiva ceremony following a distant relative’s passing, a college student & sex worker finds herself trapped at a nightmarishly awkward “party” with her parents, her ex-girlfriend, her Sugar Daddy, his wife, and their baby – struggling to keep them all apart so they don’t accidentally tattle on her triple-life.  A low-budget, 77min immersion in the sweaty panic of that disastrous wake, there’s a lot going on in Shiva Baby that directly recalls the familial tensions of the Thanksgiving-from-Hell setting of Krisha, right down to the winding tension of their plucked-strings scores.  I just don’t remember Trey Edwards Shults’s film being so Funny.  Writer-director Emma Seligman makes Shiva Baby so painfully, overwhelmingly awkward that it transforms into a kind of black comedy.  At the very least, she wouldn’t have cast Fred Melamed & Jackie Hoffman in bit parts unless she was aiming to wring out some laughs, no matter how dark.  The film even ends with all the main players converging into one cramped, chaotic space like a true farce, capturing the feeling of when your life is going so catastrophically bad that all you can do is laugh to release the tension.

The Vigil is much shorter on laughs.  It relieves its own dramatic tension in a much more traditional, straightforward way – aiming for classic haunted house scares that just happened to be staged in a highly specific cultural context.  Whereas the shiva ceremony of Seligman’s film is a post-funeral celebration & communal mourning, Keith Thomas’s haunted house horror covers the time before a funeral, when an assigned “shomer” sits vigil with the deceased so their body is never left alone.  In this case, a recent defector from an extremist form of Orthodox Judaism is reluctantly roped back into his old community as a one-night shomer for a total stranger, because he desperately needs a paycheck.  The premise is perfect for a horror film, locking a freaked-out shomer alone in a spooky house with a dead body while supernatural happenings creep in from the darkness.  The Vigil manages to cram a lot of unexpected details into that straight-forward set-up too: cult-deprogramming, Evil Internet tech, found footage video cassettes, body horror, demons, etc.  It reminded me most of the recent movies Demon (2016) & The Power (2021), but it does a great job in setting itself apart from them in its mood & scares, even beyond the specificity of its cultural context.  It would especially make for great Halloween Season programming, breaking up the usual cultural settings of by-the-books haunted house movies while still delivering the expected beats & scares of its genre (as indicated by its distribution under the Blumhouse brand).

If you’re looking for a film that’s invested in the specifics of traditional Jewish funeral rites, The Vigil is probably the more rewarding programming choice of this pair.  I personally found Shiva Baby to be the more promising debut, but its context as A Jewish Film was more generalized & cultural than The Vigil‘s.  If nothing else, it plays with the same buttoned-up comedic tension of non-Jewish films like Death at a Funeral, just with a younger, harsher edge.  It’s incredibly cool that both films were able to find proper funding & distribution around the same time to reach audiences outside the festival circuit, which is typically where culturally-specific films like this premiere and then immediately disappear.  I look forward to a time when there are enough films set in these types of niche cultural environments that they’re no longer a novelty as pairings.  For now, the significance of their cultural overlap helped them stand out among all the other, more familiar movie premises I drifted through during my on-the-couch vacation – even more so than their shared penchant for chokehold dramatic tension.

-Brandon Ledet

Demon (2016)

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Weddings can be overwhelming, dizzying affairs. This is especially true of the larger productions where a few cases of hard liquor & an overly-expansive list of guests mix to create an emotional powder keg of celebration & exhaust. Think back to the wedding scene in Goodfellas, lines of happy Catholic Italians lining up to dispense money & kisses to Henry’s new bride to the point where her head is spinning. The Polish horror film Demon turns that nauseous energy into a full-blown nightmare. Demon is ambitious in its themes, playing the past atrocities of WWII as a ghost that haunts Poland, a country-sized burial ground, and building its story around the undead spirits of traditional Jewish folklore. At the same time, though, it can be easily understood as a very conventional haunted house ghost story, one that plays out over a single night of the celebratory Party Out of Bounds mania of High-Rise. Audiences more in tune with the history of Poland’s tragic WWII horrors or the intricacies of the dybbuk in Jewish folklore might get a lot more out of Demon than I did as an outsider, but the film is still effective enough as a traditional ghost story without that insight. Its dizzying wedding setting in particular helps set it apart in that regard.

A young outsider joins a community of Polish Jews by marrying into the fold. While clearing the grounds of an old property his bride-to-be inherited from her deceased grandfather, he uncovers a literal skeleton from the past. It’s a discovery that changes him & his relationship with his new homeland in profound & disturbing ways. As a wedding ritual increasingly devolves into drunken, celebratory madness, our protagonist also loses hold of his own stability, both physical & spiritual. Strangers party in slow motion to an eerie score while the groom continually returns to the burial site he mistakenly uncovered. In his obsession with the grave he gradually becomes something new, something very ugly & very dangerous. Demon plays off the Body Snatchers-esque fear of never truly knowing your spouse as well as traditional genre film hallmarks like demonic possession, haunted spaces, and body horror. However, it avoids any clear cut, straightforward resolutions that usually accompany that territory. The mystery of what, exactly, is happening might in fact be too slow of a reveal, to the point of distraction, even if it never actually reaches a clear destination. Still, the film’s mix of otherworldly dread with manic, drunken celebration & Old World superstition is enough to make it an arresting experience overall.

There aren’t a lot of specific elements in Demon where I can say you won’t find its genre thrills anywhere else, but I do believe the lead performance by Itay Tiran as the doomed groom is one that required a lot of ambition and a lot of naked bravery. The only other performance in the horror genre I can liken it to is Isabelle Adjani’s iconic turn in the cult film Possession (which was also helmed by a Polish director, appropriately enough). Both roles ask their performers to play several different people in one: the unsuspecting spouse, the inhuman raving lunatic, and the in-transition middle state of the body contortionist. The tunnel scene in Possession is a rare moment of dramatic physicality that you won’t find in many other performances, horror or otherwise, no matter how vulnerable. Tiran somehow approaches that same naked, savage, maddening vulnerability in Demon, no small feat, and his starring turn is a lot of what makes the film feel special, if not entirely unique.

Representing Jewish folklore in horror cinema dates as far back as The Golem in the early 20th Century, but it’s still somewhat of an infrequent occurrence. The way Demon weaves its ancient narrative into modern Polish anxieties over the ghosts of past wars is fascinating and open-ended enough to be engaged with as an art film rather than a formulaic genre picture. Still, the film works just fine in a conventional horror context as well, telling an effectively unnerving ghost story against the Party Out of Bounds structural backdrop I have such a soft spot for. The film’s real world & fantastical horrors clash with the celebratory fantasy of its wedding setting remarkably well, represented visually in the mixture of its crisp formal wear with the grime of its natural forces: dirt, mud, rain, wind. The cheery visage of a wedding ritual is cinematically transformed into the eerie nightmare of demonic ritual, one that seemingly summons an overwhelming force of Nature & an inescapable ghost of the past to tear down the national façade of healed wounds & a guilt-free future. Demon might not be the most original or the most terrifying horror film you see all year, but its thematic ambition, the distinctive mania of its setting, and Itay’s lead performance all are sure to haunt you well after you leave the theater, maybe even for longer than the more eccentric films it casually resembles.

-Brandon Ledet

The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)

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We tend to think of the modern era as a creatively defunct cesspool of franchise obsession where original properties are a rare gamble in a never-ending ocean of sequels, prequels, reboots and reimaginings. The idea of the film franchise has been around for a long while, though. Consider The Golem: How He Came Into the World. It’s one of the most infamous horror films of the silent era, yet it’s a prequel in a three part series (in which the other two films are considered lost works). Think about that the next time you refuse to give Prometheus II or Leprechaun 4: In Space a fighting chance based on principle. There’s a long history of precedent in the never-ending horror franchise.

An ancient German Expressionism creature feature about Jewish mysticism, The Golem: How He Came Into the World bounces back & forth from being an incredible work that nearly rivals Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon in sheer beauty & ambition and the most standard issue silent horror you can conjure in your mind. After consulting the stars a wizardly group of rabbis foresee disaster for their community, which prompts them to start constructing a monstrous creature for their own protection, The Golem. It’s more or less the same story as the North Korean kaiju classic Pulgasari and is inspired by real life Jewish folklore. When the Jewish people are forced to evacuate by emperor’s decree, The Golem is constructed out of clay & brought to life through prayer to be the muscle that protects them from persecution. As with Pulgasari, he eventually becomes dangerously erratic, however, and poses a threat to the very people he was designed to keep safe.

Part of the reason I fail to connect with this film as much as its legacy propped up my expectations for was the design of The Golem himself. Portrayed onscreen by the film’s director, Paul Wegener, there just isn’t much to the lumbering bastard. His slow, awkward, Frankenstein-esque movements are amusing enough, especially on his first errand: buying a rabbi’s groceries; it makes total sense that the character would later appeal in the comedic sequel The Golem and the Dancing Girl. He’s not very convincing as a terror, however. His entire design more or less amounts to what it’d look like if pro wrestler Dave Bautista wore an Asian-cut wig. The Golem’s design is tied to a long history of tradition & folklore, but considering the terror of films like Nosferatu, The Phantom Carriage, and The Man who Laughs pulled off visually in the same era, he just doesn’t cut it as a silent movie monster.

That’s not to say that The Golem: How He Came Into the World is lacking in terms of striking imagery in a more general sense. The film’s beautiful, hand-built sets are a feat of expressionism in sculpture & architecture. Its tinted film cells have a Masque of the Red Death vibe in how they differentiate between separate interior spaces: reds, blues, greens, pinks, etc. The Star of David is employed as some kind of powerful source of magic, appearing in the starry sky & bringing The Golem to life during some kind of mystic ritual. Judaism is portrayed here as a kind of ancient cult complete with spells, fires, robes, and circles of smoke. In its best moments the film recalls the ancient mysticism of historically-minded works like Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages & The Witch. Like The Witch, it even claims to be “based on events in an old chronicle”, despite being based on a then-recent novel.

There’s, of course, a few points of historical context to the film that also makes it of interest. A German production before the rise of Nazism, The Golem can be very interesting in the way it portrays Judaism as a religion and as a culture. On the one hand the film has a way of othering the Jewish people as some kind of mystic band of magical weirdos. At the same time, though, they act as a sympathetic underdog culture always suffering under the tyrannical whims of uncaring royalty. In one particularly poignant scene the rabbi who created The Golem tries to change the emperor’s heart by employing a vision of his people’s plight to “amuse” the court. This sorcery is essentially what Roger Ebert refers to as “the empathy machine.” Showing oppressors what is fundamentally a moving picture wins the rabbi no sympathy for his people & the heartless dandies instead laugh in his face, causing a life-threatening scene with The Golem at its center.

With a better creature design The Golem: How He Came Into the World might’ve reached all-time classic territory. As is, I’m just not feeling that with the film as a whole. It’s a pretty decent silent horror with occasional flashes of over-the-top brilliance. I was entertained, but I wasn’t floored.

-Brandon Ledet