Director: Yoav Paz, Doron Paz
Writer: Ariel Cohen
Producer: Shalom Eisenbach
Stars: Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Kirill Cernyakov, Brynie Furstenberg, Lenny Ravitz, Alexey Tritenko, Adi Kvetner, Mariya Khomutova, Veronika Shostak
In 1673 Lithuania, a Jewish woman haunted by the death of her son conjures a mythical creature to protect her village.
The road to healing their relationship as well as themselves has been hard for Hanna and her husband Benjamin. Although Benjamin and his rabbi father believe the time has come to further their family once again, Hanna remains haunted by the death of her young son Josef seven years ago.
The small settlement where they make their humble home faces a crossroads of its own when an uninvited guest interrupts a wedding for Hanna’s sister. Cradling his dying daughter, Vladimir accuses the Jewish village of bringing a plague to his people. Flanked by fellow raging Russians, Vladimir warns that if his daughter dies, so will everyone in Hanna’s encampment.
Although women are forbidden from religious studies, Hanna has been hiding under the floor during the rabbi’s lessons for village men, and reading sacred texts sneaked home by her husband. While the rabbi recommends repentance and prayer as the main means of combating Vladimir’s raiders, Hanna suggests an offensive approach stemming from scripture.
Hanna wants to create a golem according to the Kabbalah’s instructions. Village witch Perla warns from firsthand knowledge that the mythical monster is an uncontrollably evil force. Hanna cares not for caution. Enraged by the Russians, Hanna creates the creature to protect her people. When the golem takes shape as Hanna’s dead son, the woman’s wonder renews regarding whether the dirt-caked being is a blessing or a curse.
Of course, no movie appeals to everyone equally. There are undoubtedly those who will find “The Golem’s” 1673 Lithuania setting and thick swaths of melodrama too slow, too soapy, or too something to placate individual palates. But speaking as a jaded genre fan overfed killer puppets, masked slashers, and haunted asylum investigations, it’s exceptionally refreshing to see a horror film have a uniquely intriguing historical and cultural hook like “The Golem” does.
Considering the incalculable number of movies featuring devils, demons, and exorcisms, I’m comfortable concluding that Christian and Catholic beliefs are well represented in horror. As for Judaism’s fearsome folklore, only “The Possession” (review here) comes immediately to mind as a contemporary film steeped in those superstitions. “The Golem” taps deeper into that vein with a distinctly Jewish terror tale, giving gentiles like myself insight into how another religion incorporates scares all while entertaining everyone using a lesser-known legend about dangerous desires and uncontrollable evil.
“The Golem” bases itself on mythology as much as it mirrors Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” As if to visually emphasize the echo, the golem even wears a hand-sewn garment whose patchwork construction contains conspicuous stitching.
Directors Yoav and Doron Paz clearly learned one of Shelley’s critical lessons by proving that including a monster does not mean a movie must focus exclusively on it. The inhuman creature is not the center of this story. Human relationships are.
Realistic characters ground a fantastical premise through emotionally engaging performances. As Hanna and Benjamin, Hani Furstenberg and Ishai Golan ensure that every expression heartbreakingly mirrors internalized conflict while angry inflections seethe with their burdensome pain. “The Golem” goes grim in both setting and story, yet the cast capably captivates by vitalizing dourness through relatable drama.
Every set looks fantastic. Rich imagery receives additional allure from horses, cabins, and costumes that read as authentic whether they actually are or not. Ardent attention to detail in every aspect of production design breathes life into a bleak world. Anachronisms are rendered inconsequential by virtue of how fully “The Golem” functions as a period piece concurrent with an immersive parable that is both hopeful and horrific.
For a film founded on suspenseful smolder heavily favoring style over slaughter, “The Golem” repeatedly punctuates plot points with surprising splatter. Many moments of extreme visceral violence depict bodies bursting in spectacularly supernatural ways. If character arcs miss their marks, gore can rescue wandering attention spans with sudden shocks.
The Paz Brothers’ sense for cinematic storytelling has accelerated exponentially since “Jeruzalem” (review here). In a just industry, the effort and execution displayed here would rocket them to the top of any list noting rising fright filmmakers to watch, as they are assuredly growing into greater showmen.
Horror movies rarely operate with themes so universally relevant. “The Golem” succeeds by being sincere about its story, emphasizing humanity over inhumanity, and presenting classic chills with elegant eeriness only occasionally indulgent in gruesomeness. Of the ten or so titles released thus far, “The Golem” easily leads the pack as the best looking and most satisfying movie wearing the “Dread Central Presents” banner.
Review Score: 85