February 4, 2023

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‘The Offering’ Review: A Subversive But Clearly Jewish Horror Movie

4 min read

Despite 2019’s “The Vigil” making a decent splash among genre fans, the annals of Jewish horror movies remain slim. Adding a page to those ranks is The Offering, which actually has considerable overlap with that recent predecessor — it’s also about a shapeshifting monster that hunts the living after the death of its latest host, whose corpse lies on its premises awaiting burial.

English helmer Oliver Park’s debut feature is a slick, slightly showy affair of the two. But while diverting enough, it lacks its predecessor’s atmospheric scares and psychological verve, resulting in a jump-scare-puzzle contraption that’s ultimately more cheesy than scary. The Neon Division decal is opening the Bulgaria-shot US production in 20+ US markets, with a January 13 release on digital platforms.

The introductory onscreen text informs us of “a monstrous female demon” present in “myths of the Near East and Europe” at least as far back as the 1st century, known by many names but consistent as “child-taker”. Then we see an elderly man, Yosile (Anton Trendafilov), perform a ritual to ward off some malevolent force in a cluttered apartment — unsuccessfully, it turns out.

That unfortunate gentleman is already on a slab in Feinberg Funeral Home’s basement mortuary facility when rambunctious son Art (Nick Blood) arrives with heavily pregnant wife Claire (Emily Wiseman). He’s returning here to Brooklyn after an estrangement, apparently in part because his British spouse is an “educator” – yet widowed father Saul (Alan Corduner), who still runs the family business, seems delighted to welcome them both back. Saul’s longtime assistant Himish (Paul Kaye) is less amused, who suspects that there are industrial motives for this reunion.

Somewhat improbably, two elderly men soon take up the long-absent art of embalming their dead neighbor, a process that must begin by removing the lethal knife still stuck in his sternum. Shilpa is intrigued by an amulet around the corpse’s neck, which he rather callously removes — unwittingly freeing the evil thus trapped within the lifeless body, though immediate poltergeist-like disturbances (doors slamming, flashing lights, etc.) announce that fact. . It doesn’t take long for Claire to start experiencing anxious visions or to start carving here and there while in some kind of trance for art.

Fearing that the disappearance of a local girl (Sophia Weldon) may be linked to a “curse” exacerbates family uneasiness as our heroes realize they have walked into a trap. Also Hamish’s discovery that the real estate broker art, in fact, broke, and was really here to sign over the family home/business as collateral for a loan to his father. Such mundane concerns are forgotten, however, once the second half of Hank Hoffman’s screenplay becomes a busy pile of supernatural danger “Boo!” Horror, stunt work and animal FX.

In fact, the midpoint doesn’t quite arrive when we start to see too much of the monster in question, a colossus whose depiction (it has the head of a mutant goat) would benefit from being glimpsed as briefly as possible in the dark shadows. Other surprises also hit the nail on the head in overly literal fashion, throwing actors against walls and such, especially during a long climax that recalls countless similar scenes staged since “The Exorcist” was released 50 years ago.

Despite the relative novelty of the Orthodox Jewish rather than Catholic religious underpinnings, there is little originality in the subject matter and not enough subtlety to unsettle the audience. Park seems more inclined to stick to familiar tricks like phantom ghosts leaping out of closets than to create the kind of unsettling tension that might reserve those jolts for greater effect.

Neither Philip Murphy’s production design nor Lorenzo Senatore’s slyly haunted air of widescreen lensing is to blame, both making the 19th-century-looking interior impressively grimy. Likewise, the actors do decent work, except for one teenage performer whose impersonation of evil in disguise falls very short. But their earnest efforts are betrayed by the film’s narrowly-focused, sweeping overall approach, which sacrifices credibility for increasingly chaotic, ineffectual shock. (Claire alone suffers so many nasty surprises, it begins to defy belief that she hasn’t already miscarried.)

“Offering” moves along at a brisk clip, so it’s not in danger of being boring, even if its horror potential is wasted. But it does illustrate the virtue of “less is more,” especially when attempting a serious mystical horror story. It’s too much — though Overkill is entertaining enough in its way, at least when the final crew scroll doesn’t reveal an achievement for “special effects teeth.”

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