Monday 29 November 2021

Hanukkah (2019)

Director: Eben McGarr
Writer: Eben McGarr
Stars: Charles Fleischer, P. J. Soles, Joe Knetter, Sid Haig, Caroline Williams, Dick Miller and Sid Haig

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Apparently, Hanukkah films are enough of a thing for them to have their own Wikipedia page, even if that page points out that the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah shows up more often on television than in film. Surprisingly, given that the Jewish people have their own country, there are more Hanukkah films made in the United States than in Israel. It seems that Hanukkah films are kind of like what Christmas films used to be before they got taken over by Hallmark and stopped being about Jesus and started being about the spirit of the season. Then again, maybe we can blame Charles Dickens for that! The most obvious difference is that they’re Jewish, but they celebrate a religious holiday with a religious story told using religious elements: lighting menorahs, spinning dreidels and eating traditional food. They often reference the Maccabees, Judas Maccabeus and his four brothers, who took back Judea from the Seleucid Empire in the second century BC, founding the Hasmonean dynasty and rededicating the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

This is a Hanukkah film because it includes many of those component parts but, because it’s in my Horror Movie Calendar series, it’s unsurprisingly a little unlike most other Hanukkah films, even more so than An American Tail, Eight Crazy Nights or The Hebrew Hammer, all Hanukkah films but an animated feature, a musical comedy and a blaxploitation flick respectively. This one is a horror movie and it revels in being a horror movie, as full of as gratuitous gore and gratuitous full frontal female nudity as menorahs and dreidels. Surprisingly, though, for a movie that’s as ruthlessly exploitative as this one, it even manages to cram in some honest to goodness Rabbinical debate, one character going toe to toe with the killer and arguing against his justification by quoting from the Torah and the Mitzvahs. This Hanukiller may be killing, mutilating and flaying bad Jews but he thinks of himself as a Jewish priest and the book of Leviticus strictly prohibits Jewish priests from touching corpses or even being in the same room as one. So there!

I should point out that this is a bad movie—a really bad movie—and I’m still struggling to come to terms with how horribly wrong it went, but there’s a lot to praise about it, starting with its very origins: it’s yet another horror movie set on a holiday, but it’s Jewish. Writer/director Eben McGarr is notably immersed in the horror genre, not just by making horror films but by running a fantastic horror convention called Mad Monster Party, at which I’ve met many of the people involved in Hanukkah. However, he noticed the “serious lack of representation” in holiday horror films for something Jewish and decided that he had to redress the balance. So he made Hanukkah and also aims to make a couple of sequels, to be shot back to back, called Day of Judgement and Day of Atonement, set on or around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even though I had myriad problems with this movie, I hope he’s able to make those two because one problem he didn’t have was a good reason to do it.

I mentioned the Hanukiller already, so I should point out that there are two of them. The first is confined to the prologue, because he’s shot by police before he can sacrifice his only son on his kitchen table. There’s absolutely no reason given at this point for why Judah Lazarus is going to kill his kid or why his wife is chained up in the bathroom upstairs, naked in a bath full of blood, but that’s kind of important so I’ll hook it from an hour and change into the movie and tell you right off the bat. He believes that God speaks to him and, while there are 613 mitzvahs, or commandments, in the Jewish faith, he has another 53 that God gave him personally. So he murders bad Jews during the eight days and nights of Hanukkah, carving a Scar of David (ha!) into their chests or bellies. He’s played by the wonderful Sid Haig, who clearly knew that this was going to be his final film and so milks his skimpy screen time as best he can. Judah’s death scene is as touching as it is overdone. Rest in peace, Sid.

Fast forward thirty-six years and the Hanukiller is back, though not in the resurrected form of Judah Lazarus, who many now think of as the lead character in a TV movie (“viewer discretion advised”) starring Mark Harmon, Robert Forster and Burgess Meredith. The new Hanukiller is Obadiah, the son that Judah didn’t manage to sacrifice, who’s spent the intervening years in foster care, as his mother died after three years in an asylum. Why, we don’t know and I can’t even hook the reason from later in the movie. This feature simply isn’t interested in telling us the why of anything. It’s a Jewish holiday horror movie and that’s all that it cares about. Obadiah is a quiet killer who hardly speaks during the entire picture, but Joe Knetter, whose filmography includes such timeless classics as Strip Club Slasher, Night on Has Been Mountain and Chainsaw Maidens from Hell, ably makes him look and feel apart from the world. He exists to enter scenes that he shouldn’t be in and make them his own, capably and bloodily.

So far, so good. It’s been inventive and brutal and touching. Now it’s menacing. Sadly, it goes steadily downhill from here and that begins when we meet the regular cast. I think Adam is supposed to be the everyman in this picture whom we’re supposed to relate to, at least a little, while his roommate Josh is, in many ways, the final girl, because he’s the only good Jew in the film, at least until a cameo appearance at the very end from the magnificent Dick Miller as Rabbi Walter Paisley, making this the sixth time he’s played a character of that name. The original Walter Paisley was his character in the stellar Roger Corman black comedy, A Bucket of Blood, but he kept the name alive in Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling, and a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, all of which were directed by Joe Dante, then Chopping Mall and now Hanukkah. He does a fantastic job here, easily providing the best acting in the picture and, as with Sid Haig, it was his final film, but I’m glad he took the opportunity to play his first rabbi. Rest in peace, Dick.

But back to Adam and Josh, who we don’t care about in the slightest, even though they’re just a smidgeon more sympathetic than the rest of the cast. I’ve read that McGarr wanted the actors who played Adam and Josh, along with the latter’s girlfriend, Rachel, and their friends David and Judy, to be “as reprehensible as possible”. Apparently, he’s a fan of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and saw Hanukkah as an episode of that show “that has a killer running around”. On that basis, the actors did a great job, but I hated all of them—even those played by people I’ve met and liked, such as Sadie Katz—and not in a good way. I’m used to hating characters in slasher movies and wanting them to die slow and horrible deaths but I’m also used to enjoying watching them get to that point. These characters were so annoying that I didn’t even want to watch them, I just wanted to fast forward to their death scenes. They aren’t just reprehensible characters, they’re also tedious ones.

There’s a scene when Rachel cheats on Josh with David that’s acutely awkward but in a really good way. He really wanted this and she’s clearly into it too, even though she shouts at him that he has a micro-dick and she can’t even feel him inside her, all from the reverse cowgirl position so she can’t see his utter lack of enthusiasm for that sort of abuse. It’s an awkward scene for him, but not for us because it’s funny and sad and karmic all at the same time. However, it’s cross-cut with another awkward scene that doesn’t work the same way. This one has Josh eating dinner alone with Rachel’s mother, because she bailed on him to go to the lame party that all the others are at, and his expected mother-in-law very much makes it seem like she’s coming on to him. Sure, it’s awkward for the characters but it’s awkward for us too and that spoils the effect. The biggest problem this movie has is that, far too often, it plays just as awkwardly for us as for the characters who deserve it.

The best aspect the film has is that it exists, as a Jewish holiday horror movie, something that’s even called out in the script in neat fashion, as Judy tells Adam, “We need more Jewish horror movies”. She even has ideas: The Last Synagogue on the Left is cheesy but Gefilte Flesh is glorious. That’s the best moment in the film that doesn’t involve blood. The next best is a brutally ironic scene that’s genius in conception and revolves around the thirty-nine melachot, which are categories of work prohibited to observant Jews on Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath. We’re introduced to that at Ian’s house after his astoundingly lame party, because all David’s tyres are slashed and Josh won’t drive on Shabbat to pick up his unfaithful friends. Then we cross-cut to a naked Amanda in a Hanukiller pit. She twigs to it being Shabbat, so climbs out and escapes from her handcuffs right in front of him, even chewing off her thumbs to do so. Then she runs out of the house, unhindered, only to step in a bear trap chained to the wall. Without opposable thumbs.

I feel duty bound as a critic to highlight that there are some fantastic ideas here. Amanda’s scene of brutal irony is so wrong in all the right ways that it’ll stay with me and I haven’t even described all of it. There’s also an early scene featuring the most overt Jew I’ve ever seen in film walking down a pavement towards a skinhead, with an SS logo on his jacket and a swastika tattooed onto his scalp, who refuses to give way. Cross-cut to the new Hanukiller carving that tattoo off his dead scalp, as Leviticus prohibits them. He hurls it stickily at the floor and swaps his yarmulke for the remaining skull fragment. How much depth is there in that action? There’s another glorious moment when supposed good guys are searching a house for the Hanukiller and find a bunch of mirrors covered during shiva, or mourning. Removing one, they find a living victim, whom an annoying Russian punches in the face as a reflex action. There is humour here, but it’s really black humour, rooted in Jewish tradition, and I only wish there was more of it.

However, I also feel duty bound as a critic to highlight that those fantastic ideas don’t remotely make up for the rest of the picture, which is a bizarre failure given everyone involved. Now, I loved Eben McGarr’s debut feature as a writer/director, 2007’s Sick Girl, a revenge horror with a joyous lead performance from Leslie Andrews, but this feels more like a rough storyboard from him than an eventual product and many of the talented people he put on screen struggle to make their presence really felt. I wonder if that ties to this being a piecemeal production because it certainly feels like one, with many of the name actors—Sid Haig, P. J. Soles, Caroline Williams, Dick Miller—sharing their screen time with only one other actor each. Almost every scene feels like it ought to have more of at least something: more participants, more extras, more dialogue, more set decoration, more props, more score, more lighting, more movement, more explanation, more continuity, more reason to be in the film to begin with.

In fact, there are lots of scenes, especially at Ian’s house, where the characters sit around doing nothing except gradually figuring out that they probably ought to get around to doing something. When Adam finally says to Nina—Amanda’s inexplicably Russian cousin—that they should finally go to the police, we’re wondering why he hadn’t done that a day earlier and yet they still don’t do it. Instead they find Yuri for no reason at all then get back on the couch to do nothing, even answer questions that clearly require answers. I get that this had a seriously low budget and it emphatically needed more money to work, but scenes like these make me wonder if it would have worked even had more money magically materialised out of the ether. Somehow, after setting up a wildly gratuitous lesbian make out session between Sadie Katz’s Rachel and Louise Rosealma’s Judy, McGarr backs out of the whole thing, setting up only an admittedly cool later defence of lesbianism by Adam as not being prohibited by Jewish scripture.

In fact, the more I think about this film, the more I see missed opportunities. For instance, while this is a very (and very knowing) Jewish film, full of little nods to Jewish rules and customs that feel thoroughly original in a genre that’s been plumbing Christianity for centuries, it doesn’t actually bother to explain much to us about the holiday of its title. Nobody mentions that it commemorates the Maccabean revolution in Judea or that they reasserted the Jewish faith by rededicating the Second Temple in Jerusalem. There is mention, at least, that, unlike most holidays covered by horror movies in this book, it isn’t one holiday but a season of eight days, because we start out with warnings on the radio that six more bodies have been discovered on the eighth night of Hanukkah and it may well not be it. There’s a prominent menorah behind Judah but nothing to explain why there are nine candles on it, the larger shamash candle used to light each of the others. And are jalapeƱo poppers really a Jewish tradition? Inquiring minds want to know.

So this is a lost opportunity, but there are two more opportunities yet to come. Eben McGarr certainly has all the off screen talent needed to make a pivotal Jewish horror holiday movie and, through the events that his company Mad Monster hosts, he has access to all the on screen talent he needs too, even if Sid Haig and Dick Miller are no longer with us. Ironically, Miller plays one of a very few characters in this film who survive it; for all its many flaws, the death count is, at least, agreeably high. The focal point for the two potential sequels appears to be Ze’ev Feist, who shows up at the very end of the movie, during Miller’s scene. He’s the brother of Amon Feist, a soft-spoken but ineffective rabbi in this who’s played by Charles Fleischer—nominally the lead actor, even though he doesn’t show up until over an hour’s gone by—and Ze’ev promises to be a more emphatic character indeed. All McGarr really needs now is the budget to do Day of Judgement and Day of Atonement justice and the care and attention to do them right.

No comments: