Horror movies are often criticized for their formulaic nature. True, like any genre it’s characterized its clichés but it’s one equally one defined by a willingness to subvert and destabilize the norm, loosen the viewer from their preconceptions about reality and the structures of society. To do this successfully, any horror film’s relationship to the tropes that define the genre must be equally combative, embracing them while also exaggerating, subverting or re-contextualizing them. A simple and familiar fairy-tale can become thrilling if reworked into a fresh niche setting. The Offering aims to do just that, taking a commonplace story of demonic possession and ingraining it in a distinctively Jewish setting. The audience knows how such stories often play out, but the specificity of the culture and setting being intruded upon, reinvests the most familiar plot points with tension and spontaneity.
The film opens with a prologue that’s unusually dramatic and explicit, holding back few mysteries and setting the plot and lore up in a very effective but low exposition manner. We’re then introduced to Art (Nick Blood – great horror movie name that!) who is attempting to rebuild bridges with his Hasidic father Saul (Allan Corduner) who runs a funeral parlor. We can see that Art has clearly drifted from the faith, as he arrives shorn, with his pregnant gentile wife Claire (Emm Wiseman). It appears, he may have ulterior motives for reopening communication with the father and community he turned his back on, motives that Saul’s contemptuous and suspicious assistant Heimish (Paul Kaye) is quick to sniff out once Art resumes assisting his father in the morgue.
The Offering is hardly the first recent horror movie to explore similar ideas in a similar setting. 2019’s terrific chiller The Vigil also followed a young man, recently apostatized from an orthodox sect of the faith who finds himself once again, standing vigilant over a body. It’s a longstanding tradition in the Jewish faith to watch over the bodies of the deceased, to prevent malefic entities from taking possession of them, a scenario that has provided great opportunity for horror writing. One of the most classic Jewish horror movies Viy, from 1967, depicts this same scenario. So The Offering is walking a path well trod and has little trouble finding its feet. To a gentile viewer, the religious paraphernalia and arcane jargon is alien enough to provoke mystery and suspense, and incense memories of comparative mythologies. To Jewish audiences, it would be presumptive to say, but the film’s portrayal of the community and the traditional practices that arise in the wake of a death are presented credibly and with effective atmosphere of portent.
The film’s helped no end by it’s excellent cast. Game of Thrones‘s Thoros of Myr Paul Kaye is probably the film’s biggest name, and he certainly relishes the part in a great character role that shares a lot of similarity with his turn as the wine-soaked red priest. His mere presence screams bitter judgement, religious portent, a well-earned sense of professional superiority and an earnest laconic charisma. It’s a terrific show-stealing performance but by no means is he exceptional among the cast; Blood gives a convincing tragic antihero and Corduner is wonderful as the optimistic loving paternal heart of the film. The personal drama between these characters gives the first half a weight and resonance that its conclusion doesn’t quite live up to, but which gives the scares to follow the requisite stakes.
Belief in the characters and setting is about all you need to get a formulaic story off the ground and The Offering manages to invest the audience well. We feel Saul’s regret, his sense of duty and his happiness at having his son and his new daughter in law back in his life and we feel Art’s inner conflict and sense of shame at crawling back in need. The conviction of the cast brings these feelings to life and Oliver Park’s atmospheric direction and cinematography by Lorenzo Senatore gives a weight and ambiance to the film that succeeds in selling the setting and dynamics. Aside from the occasionally wobbly effects which are honestly a lot better than we often see, my main complaint with the film is a common one with a lot of horror movies, that the score and sound design over-sell the scares. A surprising fault to find with The Offering given that the composer Christopher Young has such a strong pedigree in the horror genre, having composed for Sam Raimi, Scott Derrickson, David Prior and Clive Barker, but I suppose those films are all campier in tone than the generally serious The Offering.
With a bad horror movie, you know what’s going to happen and don’t jump. With a truly great one, you don’t know what’s going to happen and therefore jump. The Offering is the third kind: the ones where you know what’s going to happen, but still find yourself jumping anyway. The familial scenario is credibly constructed and carries emotional stakes, the atmosphere created by Oliver Park is thick and oppressive and the performances are intense, sincere and convincing. It doesn’t upend or subvert the genre nor push it in exciting new directions, but for an evening of tense chills that are marginally more mature than some, The Offering gives you your money’s worth.