Every year when the holidays roll around, families gather around the television to watch such classics as Silent Night, Deadly Night, Black Christmas, and Christmas Evil. Christmas slasher movies hold a special place in the heart of many horror fans and every year more films emerge with a killer Santa, Krampus, or Christmas Tree which helps so many get into a festive mood. However, why must these films always center around Christmas or the Christian religion? Why are so many killers a spawn of the Christian devil or disguised as Santa Claus?...
...I’ve loved horror films since I was small and growing up I wanted what all little Jewish girls want: a slasher movie I could call my own. And thanks to My Way Pictures this year we have a Hanukkah miracle! A holiday themed movie for the Jewish horror fans. Writer/Director Eben McGarr (House of the Wolf Man) brings us Hanukkah, which he claims is the first ever Jewish slasher film.
The film, while set in present day, serves as a throwback to classic 80’s slasher movies, except Hanukkah touts quite a bit more gore, nudity, and Jews. Aside from Sid Haig as the religiously inspired Judah Lazarus, the film also features quite a few horror alumni such as PJ Soles (Halloween, Jawbreaker) Caroline Williams (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Charles Fleischer(Demon Knight, Nightmare on Elm Street), and Dick Miller (The Howling, Gremlins, every other movie ever made) in his final screen performance. A producer credit goes to Felissa Rose of Sleepaway Camp fame and the score comes from the mind of Harry Manfredini who brought us the memorable Friday the 13th music. Needless to say, a lot of experts in the world of horror came together to give us an early Hanukkah present.
Beginning in 1983, the movie starts with Judah Lazarus returning home from his most recent kill. Lazarus does not speak, but via a radio broadcasted news bulletin we learn about the series of murders which have been occurring. Now besides the body parts piling up in the basement, we see a lot has gone wrong in the Lazarus household. Ana Lazarus (Williams) wakes up naked and shackled inside a dirty bloody bathtub. Elsewhere in the house, her husband Judah stalks through the home completely naked aside from his yarmulke. Sid Haig barely speaks in the opening sequence, but he commands the scene with the intensity of his eyes and inwardly tortured demeanor. Constant unintelligible whispers fill the space and command the father to take the life of his son.
The next scene jumps to present day and we soon understand the slasher-esque premise of the main part of the film. A group of young people gather in a fairly secluded house for a party and one by one the guests disappear. Mixed in with scenes from the party we also experience two separate storylines of different invitees who did not make the party. Amanda (Victoria De Mare) finds herself naked, shackled, and submerged in a water filled hole (bit of a theme going with the women). Throughout the film we watch her struggle, scream, succeed, fail, escape, and experience extreme pain at the hands of her captor and herself. And as we flash between these images of despair and the party, we also witness a weird and awkward side-story unraveling between Mrs. Horowitz (Soles) and her daughter’s boyfriend, Josh (D’Andre Johnson). The purpose of the strange dinner scene seems to serve as a means to show how Josh remains an observant Jew, while his party-going girlfriend Rachel (Sadie Katz) strays too far from the laws of Judaism. This may seem an unnecessary bit of information, but later this will play into the motivation for the murderer.
The Hanukiller (as the news reports calls him) takes two approaches to his victims. He either murders the people he believes breaks biblical law, or he forces unclean women to stay in his makeshift mikveh (a bath for ritual purity). However, regardless of how dedicated a person makes themselves to the commandments they cannot escape Lazarus because the Hanukiller added a few dozen more rules only he knows. Therefore, we are all sinners in the eyes of Lazarus.
Aside from the interesting story, the director also brings a unique visual style which plays throughout the film. McGarr does some amazing work with the lighting and color scheme as different scenes, locations, and times of day become represented with monochromatic blues, reds, or browns. Throughout the film the director relies heavily on high contrast where scenes depict stark differences between light and dark and offer very little gradient in between. The use of color and shadow allows the director to greatly command where the viewer should look and draws our eye to precise details and textures, which further controls the emotions evoked by the cinematography.
As one day goes into the next, the progression of time becomes indicated by shots of an Ed Gein inspired menorah (a Gein-orah??) as each boney branch of the candelabra becomes lit until the end of the eight-night holiday. The pacing struggles a bit going into the third act as the deaths must span the length of Hanukkah, and this forces the story to rely on slightly implausible reasons for all the characters to still remain at the party house for several days.
Typical to slasher movies, all exposition comes from an elder/wiseman/shaman and Hanukkah follows the formula by introducing Rabbi Amon Feist (Fleischer) who explains to the remaining youth how decades ago during Hanukkah, Judah Lazarus murdered anyone he deemed enemies of the Jewish faith, leaving the “Scar of David” engraved on the body of the deceased. The murders stopped in the 80s, but now have started again and the Hanukiller likes himself a messy murder. McGarr does not shy away from sharing with us some torturous death-scenes.
While the killings range from a quick throat slash to the forceful removal of tattoos, McGarr also added a bit of humor to the film. Adam (Robert Felsted Jr.) and Judy (Louise Rosealma) play both the comic relief and the voice of reason in several situations. During the first night of the party, Adam and Judy have a fairly meta-conversation about the lack of Jewish themed horror films. Directors: if you are in need of ideas, pay attention to the great list of movie pitches mentioned by Judy.
Even though the movie centers around the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and presents predominantly Jewish characters, non-Hebrew speaking horror fans unaware of Jewish traditions can and should still enjoy this gruesome holiday feature. Expanding representation in horror will not only bring more fans to the genre but will still satisfy existing fans with a great film. Gore, cinematography, nods to 80s films, and some of the great names of horror movies, all combine to make this film a delightful slasher. Very few theatres across the country will be showing the film, but the Hanukkah Blu-ray (or VHS!) will thrill movie collectors as the Blu-ray’s special features include the last wraps of Sid Haig and Dick Miller. Sadly, this will be the last film for Haig and Miller, but hopefully not the end of Jewish slasher films. The movie ends with a teaser for the return of the Hanukiller, so let’s hope McGarr started a new trend in expanding horror movie themes.
Hanukkah is now playing in limited theaters, with a VHS release on December 20th, followed by a VOD/Blu-ray release on February 11th, 2020.
By Amylou Ahava
Like Amylou's writing? Leave her a tip here through Ko-fi!