Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934)
This article originally appeared in Tablet Magazine on August 30, 2012 and is reprinted here with the author's permission. It served as the inspiration for a program curated by J. Hoberman for this year's New York Jewish Film Festival, The Black Cat (and Other Tales), which screens Thursday, January 17 at 9:00pm.
You might imagine that the past hundred years of Jewish history have been sufficiently horrendous to preclude the possibility of a Jewish horror film. And you might be right. But that has hardly deterred people from trying to make one. This week we have The Possession, produced by horror-meister Sam Raimi and based on a “true story”—or perhaps an Internet bobe-mayse—about a ceremonial “wine cabinet” that contains a dybbuk. (The mordent slasher flick Kalevet [Rabies] was touted as Israel’s first horror film when it was released in late 2010, a few months before the straight-to-DVD Hate’s Haunted Slay Ride, billed by its distributor as “the world’s first Jewish horror film” complete with a Torah-wielding rabbi battling supernatural evil.)
A dybbuk, in Jewish folklore, is a wandering soul, usually male and not so much evil as confused, that takes up residence in the body of young woman. S. An-Sky collected numerous accounts of this phenomenon in his pre-World War I ethnographic expedition through the Russian Pale; these formed the basis for his poetic drama The Dybbuk, which was first performed in Yiddish in 1920. The Possession, or at least the movie’s back story, conjures up a more modern dybbuk, associated with the Holocaust and publicized online: A 103-year-old grandmother leaves behind the mysterious “Dybbuk box” she brought with her from Nazi-occupied Poland. Purchased at an estate sale, the box seems to inflict extravagant bad luck on an Oregon antiques dealer who, describing the object as a “wine cabinet,” puts it on eBay, complete with a lurid caveat emptor. The object is bought for $140 by a Missouri college student who also suffers a series of mysterious misfortunes; he sells the box, for twice what he paid, to the curio-collecting curator of the Truman State University Museum. The curator writes a book—his bad luck is that, thanks to a piece in the Los Angeles Times, the story of the Dybbuk Box had already been acquired for the movies (along with the antiques dealer, he is credited as a “production consultant” on the film).
Brought to the screen by an experienced Danish genre director, Ole Bornedale, The Possession is more than competent, drawing heavily on The Exorcist and taking a bit from Poltergeist. In the opening scene, some ominous minor-chord piano doodling prompts an elderly lady, alone in her suburban house somewhere north of New York City, to take a hammer to the family heirloom parked on her mantelpiece, which is evidently driving her crazy. The attack boomerangs in spectacular fashion: The haunted box is put out in a yard sale; there it is spotted and coveted by a young girl in need of comfort as she suffers the trauma of her parents’ divorce. The sadness within her and the spooky stuff inside the box—a ring, a tooth, a hank of hair, and a disembodied voice whispering in a secret language—more or less prompt her increasingly literal-minded possession.
An-Sky’s The Dybbuk (1937)
That the girl’s family isn’t Jewish is underscored by her father’s most un-tribal name: Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Nor are they, in any identifiable way, religious. Still, having learned from a professor pal that the box is inscribed with the Hebrew word “dybbuk,” Clyde undertakes an Internet search and, discovering an exorcist named Tzadok, drives down to Borough Park for The Possession’s spookiest scene. The streets are shadowed by the El and filled with Hasidim. Suddenly, all vanish into their shuln except for the mysterious Tzadok, played by one-time Hasidic reggae trip-hopper Matisyahu.
Tzadok takes Clyde into the shul to consult his father, the Rebbe, who, speaking in Yiddish, informs him that the resolution of the girl’s possession “must be left to the will of G-d.” That advice does not sit well with Clyde. “The will of God!?” he explodes, pulling off the protective yarmulke he’d been given to wear. “If this was your child, would you leave it to the will of God???” He storms out, but the rebellious dybbuk-buster Tzadok is still willing to help him: The big exorcism scene—held in a hospital physical therapy room—is both attention-grabbing and risible. Hard not to chuckle when, beleaguered by Tzadok’s chanting, the dybbuk screams at him to “shut up.” It’s as if, in a flashback to an earlier sort of fantasy film, the dybbuk had been spooked by the Jew.
In The Possession, Matisyahu’s game performance does offer a measure of authenticity—less in Jewish than in film-historical terms. The representation of traditional Jews as exotic, uncanny others puts The Possession in the tradition of early German horror films like The Golem (1920), in which Rabbi Loew of Prague creates an ur-Frankenstein’s monster, and Nosferatu (1922), in which a vampire emigrates from deepest Carpathia to Bremen, Germany. Of course, the vampire in Nosferatu isn’t explicitly Jewish, he’s more like an anti-Semitic nightmare—a lascivious, blood-sucking extravagantly hook-nosed Eastern foreigner who arrives in Germany with a plague of rats.
Indeed, 18 years later, the Nazis would characterize their anti-Semitic propaganda as something akin to horror films. In 1940, Fritz Hippler promoted his loathsome Der Ewige Jude, largely filmed in occupied Poland, as “an absolute symphony of horror and disgust,” including an “absolutely truthful” documentary of Jewish ritual slaughter “so awful” as to be inappropriate viewing for Aryan women and children. (Among other “Jewish performances,” the movie included a clip of Peter Lorre—a Jewish refugee—playing the child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s M.)
Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934)
A few Jewish films produced at Universal (the Hollywood studio most identified with the horror genre) by Central European Jewish émigrés did attempt to answer the Nazi Jewish horror genre. Most notable among these was The Black Cat (1934), Edgar G. Ulmer’s supremely perverse vehicle for Universal’s top stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, released some 15 months after Hitler came to power in Germany. Taking only its title from Edgar Allen Poe, Ulmer’s movie marooned a naïve pair of American honeymooners in Europe’s heart of darkness, where they became unwitting pawns in the death struggle between a hysterical Hungarian psychiatrist (Lugosi) and a proto-Nazi, Satan-worshipping Austrian architect (Karloff) who has built his steel-and-glass deco castle on the site of World War I’s bloodiest battlefield. Despite trafficking in incest, necrophilia, human sacrifice, and sadism—not to mention a black mass with a stylized crooked cross—The Black Cat somehow got past the Production Code to become Universal’s highest-grossing release of 1934. (Then, in a career move without Hollywood precedent, Ulmer relocated to New York to make Yiddish and Ukrainian “ethnic” movies on budgets that sometimes failed to break five figures.)
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.
Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968). Photo: PARAMOUNT / THE KOBAL COLLECTION
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.
Film critic and author J. Hoberman will introduce a special screening of the Béla Lugosi/Boris Karloff horror classic The Black Cat, plus clips from other works he considers compelling Jewish horror movies, on Thursday, January 17 at 9:00pm as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival.