Holiday-themed horror, especially end-of-the-year holiday-themed horror has been a passion of mine since I snuck my way into renting on VHS Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) many, many years ago. That started this bizarre fascination with tradition-thumping genre pics that has largely informed my own creative work. So, it is without question then that, this final night of Hanukkah, I tell you all about Hanukkah (2019). This review is specific to the Invincible Blu-ray release and, by all accounts, was something I was very eager to see. It hit all the checkboxes: 1) disrupting a religious tradition, 2) the promise of classic slasher tropes, 3) a horror all-star cast with the final appearances of both Sid Haig and Dick Miller, and 4) holiday-specific puns that keep me warm on cold nights. I mean, even the box copy called it, “A Tora-fying New Tale of Horah” and it was, “From Dreidel to Grave.” The sense of humor was there, the horror necessities were there, and I was all in on what I was sure to be a new masterpiece of religious holiday terror.
Oy, vey. That was not in the cards.
To be fully transparent, I am not Jewish. I was raised a Presbyterian and have largely eschewed any faith. That just isn’t me, so this isn’t about skewering a religion, per se, but about skewering tradition. Tradition for the sake of tradition is an anathema to progress… especially a tradition that the modern practitioners really have no idea why they are doing it outside of ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ That is what appealed to me so much about Silent Night, Deadly Night or Christmas Evil (1980) and what really went into my own work like Rottentail (2019) and the graphic novel Kringle, among others. Tradition being served up for slaughter was the real treat. Hanukkah had that, in spades, but it lost its way in the narrative. Maybe that is why Hanukkah was so disappointing. The blueprint, from the Italian Giallos in the late-60s, through the rise of day-based slashers like Friday the 13th all the way through today… the plot has been the same and, in defense of the industry, that plot is the latkes of the genre; yummy comfort food that we can sink into and watch the wetworks with as a framework. Dismissing that piece and, at times, over-complicating and under-writing respectively, damaged the piece. Every time we get into it, we’re taken out of it just as quickly. That’s the wrong type of emotional rollercoaster ride.
Hanukkah was written and directed by Eben McGarr (Sick Girl, House of the Wolfman) and rudderless storytelling notwithstanding, the vibe is there. This FEELS right. It feels like a sleazy, Hasidic version of a Silent Night, Deadly Night. It looks great with James Balsamo and Kevin Israel Castro sharing credited director of photography duties and the cast is top notch. Sid Haig and Dick Miller make their final film appearances in Hanukkah while Charles Fleischer, PJ Soles, and Caroline Williams are well-known genre veterans. Fleischer and Soles seem to have phoned it in a bit, but Williams is a tour de force here, as always, even with what little she had to work with and while completely nude. There is absolutely nothing weak about that woman and I love watching her perform. Even the supporting cast features wonderful up and comers in the genre like Sadie Katz (Wrong Turn 6, Amityville Harvest), Victoria De Mare (the Killjoy series), and the venerable Joe Knetter as our “Hanukiller,” Obadiah Lazarus.
And there’s the issue. All of these wonderfully crazy genre elements come together, from cast to camera and excellent practical effects (and they were very well done and copious with a particular ‘skin grafting’ scene that has to be seen to be believed). There are small touches, too, like the oil baths that are fun, irreverent nods to the holiday. Hell, Kane Hodder, the average fanboy’s only Jason Vorhees, was the stunt coordinator. Hanukkah had a pedigree, man… but the bones just weren’t there.
The story is simple enough. Ten years ago, the original Hanukiller (Haig) is about to sacrifice his son when the police barge in. The boy is saved but becomes the new Hanukiller (Knetter) targeting people he doesn’t believe serve the faith. Essentially, he is hunting ‘naughty’ people. A group of friends, featuring Katz and De Mare (and other young, but seasoned, low budget genre folks) are targeted, one by one, in a remote location. There is copious amounts of nudity, irreverence, and gore, but the story meanders from moment to moment, and the actors are largely left to their own devices, which doesn’t provide a cohesive experience. The inclusion of Fleischer’s character in the third act feels shoe-horned in, like late-arriving Loomis hunting Michael Meyers. Even Fleischer’s final scene was evidently shot on the quick without another actor there as the, presumably, second unit team picked up reaction shots. That’s a singular example, of course, but that is what makes this feel like a patchwork quilt and not a cozy, warm horror blanket for a winter night. McGarr has managed to smush together a golem, with clay and spit and energy but it could have been so much more.
The Invincible Blu-ray is a nice package, though, and although the inclusion of the final takes of Haig and Miller is a bit morbid, it is nice they have been recorded for posterity. There are a LOT of special features, which is great, and a unique TV Menorah collection for each of those eight deadly nights as you celebrate. Hanukkah is available to stream for a rental fee on Amazon Prime, but if you’re going to get it, go they physical media route.