Toronto Jewish Film Festival puts horror movies in the spotlight

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on May 1, 2014.

In Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, a 1967 parody of the popular Hammer horror genre, a young woman attempts to fend off a Jewish vampire by brandishing a cross — a bloodsucker’s kryptonite.

It doesn’t go so well.

“Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire,” responds the unafflicted creature of the night.

In its 22nd year, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival , which kicked off Thursday, features “Golems, Dybbuks and the Jewish Fantastic,” a sidebar series highlighting Jewish identity in horror films.

“When some Jewish filmmakers approach the horror genre, it tends to be as parody,” says film scholar Mikel Koven, who on Saturday will discuss mythical Jewish monsters as well as the Jewish directors who’ve contributed to the genre. Along with Polanski’s film, the series also features Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To — which looks at mind control and cults with “tongue planted firmly in cheek” — Sydney Lumet’s televised The Dybbuk (1960), an episode from the The X-Files , and a modern Israeli horror film, Goldberg and Eisenberg.

Jewish identity is rooted in the earliest days of the horror genre. Paul Wegener’s Der Golem (1920) — the German director’s third filmed adaptation of the mythical Jewish creature — is “a classic of German expressionist cinema.” Two years later, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, featured distinct Jewish iconography. Upon the arrival of sound, Universal’s Frankenstein , featuring Boris Karloff as the inimitable monster, drew heavier on Golem stories than Mary Shelley’s original novel.

Now living in the UK, the Toronto-born Koven has been fascinated by Jewish identity in horror cinema since he saw Elwy Yost interview David Cronenberg on TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies in the 1970s. “It didn’t matter that I was too young to see any of his films at that time, here was this young Jewish Torontonian making horror films. That’s all I needed to know.”

But the connections to Jewish culture weren’t so obvious — Cronenberg’s work is largely scientific and free of any spirituality.

“You look for crumbs,” adds Koven. In The Exorcist , the skeptical Lt. Kinderman, played by Lee J. Cobb, becomes a grounding Jewish figure. “He’s arguing the rationalist, scientific approach, as opposed to the metaphysical approach, which is entirely Roman Catholic in that film.”

In Polanski’s seldom-seen yet colourful film, which screens May 10, the director treats vampires as absurd creatures. After all, the 20th century had its own monsters. In the short film Zeitgeist, screening earlier that day, director Navot Papushado explores the lingering memories of the Holocaust on modern-day Israel.

In light of the Holocaust, Koven asks if demonic possession or mythical monsters represent true horror, adding: “Could the Devil be worse than Auschwitz?”

The genocidal horrors of the Second World War have often weighed heavily in exploitation cinema — Nazisploitation films like such as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and SS Hell Camp were common in grindhouse cinemas in the 1970s.

In his talk, Koven will refer to Eli Roth’s Hostel films, particularly the sequel. “In Hostel II, there’s a very strong sense of industrial torture, and it’s taking place in eastern Europe, in the Nazi killing fields. It’s impossible to avoid that connection in your brain.”

Beyond the sidebar series, the festival, which closes on May 11 with John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo, also features a series of free screenings, including Tviggy, the late Al Waxman’s first film as director, as well as the Toronto-centric Spadina, a 1984 documentary showcasing the once-thriving garment industry that existed along Spadina Ave.

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