Molly Adams introduces six British-Jewish horror films.
Since its birth as a genre, horror films have been preoccupied with religion and why not? The ritual, dramatic iconography, and terrifying promises of punishment in fiery pits for sinners to be found in Christianity are the perfect fuel for horror. However, if you’ve ever wondered where the non-Christian entries into the British horror canon can be found, you’ve come to the right place. Here are six films that fall into the niche-within-a-niche of British-Jewish Horror.
- Countess Dracula
Hammer Horror is not only a staple of the British horror tradition but one that was built in the shadow of the Holocaust. Founded in 1934, the studio really hit its stride between the 1950s and 1970s, when so many of the creators and artists involved had direct experiences of the war. Not only was Hammer star Christopher Lee employed as a Nazi-hunter before embarking on his acting career, but the Jewish Ingrid Pitt, whose career was established through her horror work, was a survivor of the Holocaust. Following a miraculous escape from the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland at the age of 8, Pitt shot to fame in Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers (an adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla) and Countess Dracula (a film loosely based on the infamous Countess Elizabeth Báthory). Pitt was open about her trauma in her 1999 autobiography Life’s A Scream and the animated short Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest, even suggesting that although some might see her success in horror movies as odd due to the horrors of her own life, she actually thought that experiencing horror first-hand might have been what made her such a unique performer.
- The Rocky Horror Show
With a creative team including British-Jewish producer Michael White and a history of being Judaised, writer Seth Rogovoy has pointed out the hidden Jewish history of The Rocky Horror Show in both its theatrical and cinematic incarnations. From little details alluding to anti-Nazi sentiment (such as Dr Frank-n-Furter’s lab coat resembling Nazi concentration camp inmate uniform and bearing a pink triangle), to a sly argument that the film’s call-and-response tradition resembles Talmudic commentary, Rogovoy’s argument is sure to be polarising, but offers an exciting potential entry into the ranks of British-Jewish horror.
- An American Werewolf in London
Perhaps the first in the ‘Twenty-something Jewish backpackers are terrorised in Europe’ horror niche (followed by another Jewish horror film, the American torture-porn hit Hostel), An American Werewolf in London is a masterpiece of comedy and tragedy directed by John Landis. Following a werewolf attack on English moors, David Kessler wakes up in a London hospital to find his friend dead and himself left a lycanthrope. Despite all David’s lovable braggadocio and easy confidence in his own assimilation, American Werewolf reminds us that Europe is not, and has never been, a safe place for Jews. The legacy of European anti-Semitism is just as much of a threat as David’s lycanthropy, and once plucked from the American melting-pot and thrown headfirst into England’s covert antisemitism and rigid class structure, poor David never stood a chance – werewolf or not.
- The Limehouse Golem
When a serial killer begins plaguing the East London district of Limehouse, the crimes are so monstrous that journalists declare it could only be the work of a golem, a creature from Jewish folklore. Constructed from animated clay to protect the Jews of Prague from antisemitic violence, variations of the golem tale often involve losing control of the creation, which then goes on a mindless rampage, killing whoever crosses its path. The Limehouse Golem takes place with Jewish legend and communities as a backdrop, and while it might not engage deeply with the lore of the golem, it’s still a fun crime-horror film.
- The Wicker Man
Bear with me on this one! The Wicker Man may not feature any overtly Jewish content, but it does take aim at religious certainty on any end of the spectrum. The denizens of Summerisle could be a stand-in for any religion that undermines Christianity, but their paganism is a direct ancestor of Christianity, something that threatens the dominant religion. Penned by Jewish screenwriter Antony Shaffer and even featuring Jewish actress Ingrid Pitt as one of the islanders, the subversive threat to Christianity that The Wicker Man presents becomes all the more real and perhaps even ironic, confirming Christian fears that its theological ancestor might still be a threat. It might not be an obvious pick, but as one of the best British horror movies of all time and a terrifying satire of religious ritual, The Wicker Man is long overdue a critical re-evaluation.
- Ghost Stories
Based on the 2010 play of the same name, Ghost Stories follows Dr Philip Goodman, a skeptical parapsychologist (played by co-writer and director Andy Nyman), as he investigates three unusual cases. The film adaptation ramps up the Jewish subtext of the play, investigating the protagonist’s Judaism as an eternal source of both inner conflict and external abuse. Both as a product of a dysfunctional Jewish family and as the target of anti-Semitic insults, Goodman’s relationship to his identity is complicated to say the least, and exists as a fascinating subtext to the narrative. Between themes of repression, psychoanalysis, and faith, Ghost Stories is a thrilling tale of modern Jewish identity couched in the tried-and-true trappings of ghost stories, with Nyman and Dyson’s careful integration of Jewish faith marking it above any other stock haunting narrative.