The Golem endures as a uniquely Jewish vision; a mighty, earthen homunculus who warns us about the dangers of artificial creation and makes us question whether or not man can achieve God’s creative power. These Golem stories focus on formation and destruction; the creatures are benign, merely examples in hypothetical discourse. They remain exclusively Jewish pieces of folklore until the late Middle Ages, when the legend evolves into its most famous incarnation: The Golem of Prague.
The first appearance of the Golem onscreen occurred in 1915. Cinema was brand new, and some of the foremost leaders in visual cinematic innovation were German expressionist filmmakers. ‘Der Golem’, the first in a series of 'Golem' films from Paul Wegener, was released in 1915. Although entire versions of that film and its sequel were lost, the third film in the series, ‘The Golem: How He Came into the World’ (1920) was also released in the United States and survived. These films explored the Prague Golem legend and represented the earliest on-screen depiction of the creature. Dubbed "the first monster movie", the third film focused on a hulking clay man created by a magically-inclined rabbi to save the Jews of sixteenth-century Prague from persecution. However, this noble intent is defiled by the Rabbi’s assistant, who tries to use the Golem to woo the woman he desires, causing chaos in the ghetto.
While the creature remains obscure, the film was a clear influence on James Whale and Boris Karloff’s most famous monster - the heart of the Golem legend survives in modern-day films in the form of "Frankenstein narratives", stories about people who create and then regret (and sometimes destroy) their creation. ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993) is perhaps the most obvious modern example.
Israeli writer-director team Yoav and Doron Paz’s ‘The Golem’ seems to begin during the ghetto rampage in Paul Wegener’s film. In Prague, a Thanos-sized Golem looms in the shadows of a temple, surrounded by slaughtered enemies and innocents. A young girl watches as a rabbi tries to deactivate the creature by removing a scroll containing the secret name of God from its mouth. Unfortunately, the Paz’s iteration of the creature has magical telekinetic powers that cause the priest to evaporate in a shower of viscera, ‘Scanners’-style.
The film then jumps ahead in time to Lithuania in 1673. Hanna (Hani Furstenberg, ‘The Loneliest Planet’) is a young woman in a remote village whose marriage to her husband, Benjamin (Ishai Golan), has deteriorated since their young son, Josef, drowned in an accident seven years ago. Hanna appears to have secretly prevented the birth of any future children due to the trauma, despite the impatience of her father-in-law, the rabbi, for a grandchild. 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.
As a plague ravages the land, the isolated Jewish community comes under attack by superstitious neighbouring Russian Christians. To appease them, the local healer, Perla, agrees to treat Svetlana, the infected daughter of Vladimir (Alex Tritenko), the Catholic’s leader.
While the rabbi recommends repentance and prayer as the main means of combating Vladimir’s raiders, Hanna suggests fighting back by using the rites written in the sacred texts. “A woman speaking on Kabbalah wisdom? Wonders will never cease!” the rabbi responds dismissively. Hanna insists that they use the Kabbalah’s instructions to create a protective spirit, but the rabbi refuses, warning that a Golem is an uncontrollable threat, adding, “You propose to create a Golem? When you can’t even give my son a child?”
When the Russian invaders cause Hanna’s sister Rebecca to miscarry, Hanna takes what she’s learned from her surreptitious reading of her husband’s Kabbalah and creates a Golem who looks just like her own dead son (Kirill Cernyakov). Not only that, but she soon develops a mental and physical connection to the mud creature who, like the chimp in George A. Romero’s ‘Monkey Shines’, begins acting out her subconscious desires.
Many moments of extreme visceral violence depict bodies bursting in spectacularly supernatural ways. Whenever the story appears to slow down, out pops the Golem to rip off limbs or impale a dude on a shofar.
The Golem, though in the form of a child, walks with its arms flared out to the sides like a weightlifter, inflicting its wrath with superhero-like speed and strength, as well as the aforementioned telekinesis. Much dismemberment ensues.
The first original production from Dread Central Presents (now rebranded as simply Dread), the closest point of comparison to ‘The Golem’ would be Robert Eggers’ brilliant ‘The Witch’, but only in its ambition and attention to region and culture. Not only is it refreshing to see a horror film that has a uniquely intriguing historical hook, but every set looks fantastic too. The ardent attention to detail in each aspect of production design (horses, cabins, and costumes that read as authentic) breathes life into a bleak world.
On a surface level, this is another "evil kid" film. Parental anxiety has long been fertile ground for horror, going back to ‘The Bad Seed’ and ‘The Exorcist’, and this year alone has already given us junk like David Yarovesky’s ‘Brightburn’ (evil alien kid), Nicholas McCarthy’s ‘The Prodigy’ (evil reincarnated serial killer kid) and Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s ‘Pet Sematary’ (evil zombie kid), as well as the rather good ‘The Hole in the Ground’ (evil Irish changeling kid) from Lee Cronin. ‘The Golem’ finds a somewhat fresh angle on this horror movie subgenre, as directors Yoav and Doron Paz ensure that the inhuman creature is not the heart of the tale – the human conflicts and relationships are.
A large chunk of the film is about dealing with trauma. Although Benjamin and his rabbi father believe the time has come to expand their family once again, Hanna remains haunted by the death of her young son. When the clay monster takes her boy’s appearance, that makes her extra-reluctant to destroy it, even while it literally rips people’s hearts out.
Mind-melded to Hanna, the reactive beast is fuelled not only by her desire for revenge against the Christians who victimise the Jews, but also paranoia over her husband’s friendship with another woman in the village and the repression she feels in the patriarchal Jewish society. As Hanna and Benjamin, Hani Furstenberg and Ishai Golan ensure that every expression is mirrored by internalised conflict and angry inflections seethe with their pain.
Although the film is ripe with juicy themes, that isn’t to say that ‘The Golem’ holds back on the blood and guts. Many moments of extreme visceral violence depict bodies bursting in spectacularly supernatural ways. Whenever the story appears to slow down, out pops the Golem to rip off limbs or impale a dude on a shofar.
Emphasising humanity over inhumanity, ‘The Golem’ manages to stand out from the pack not only by being a slick-looking period piece featuring an underused monster, but also an immersive morality tale that is as hopeful as it is horrific.