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‘The Offering’ Review: Jewish Mysticism Gets the Reverse ‘Exorcism’ Treatment

There's no shortage of great movies about exorcising demons from people's bodies, but this might be the best film about trying to keep one in.

"The Offering"

“The Offering”

Courtesy of DECAL

From the moment that God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son,” the idea of shedding one’s own blood in pursuit of spiritual cleansing never entirely left our collective subconscious. Dead children, hungry divinities, and humans asked to make impossible sacrifices are ideas that appear again and again in our best horror movies. So it’s only fitting that they’re finally being explored in a film about the original Abrahamic religion.

Just like the darkest parts of Christian mythology have been the stuff of Hollywood nightmares for as long as there have been movies, director Oliver Park’s reverse-exorcism thriller “The Offering” puts Judaism in the spotlight. By digging into the Kabbalah, sacred geometry, and the Eastern European myth of the miscarriage-invoking demon known as the Abyzou, Park gives us one of the first undeniably great horror movies of 2023.

Arthur (Nick Blood) is a handsome young realtor raised in a strict Hasidic environment but who drifted away from the community after he married a gentile and his father refused to attend the wedding. But with his wife Claire (Emily Wiseman) preparing to give birth to their first child, the couple decides it’s time to make amends. Plus, Arthur needs money. He hasn’t told anyone (including his pregnant wife) that he hasn’t closed a deal in two years. Without a loan from his estranged father, he’ll lose their home by the end of the week.

His father, Saul (Allan Corduner), operates — and lives in — a traditional Jewish funeral home with a morgue in the basement. Arthur and Claire decide to visit him in an attempt to form something resembling a family, and Saul is thrilled to see his prodigal son return. The old man welcomes the couple with open arms, apologizing for his past narrow-mindedness and vowing to form a new, healthier relationship. Everything seems to be going according to plan — until Arthur starts helping with the dead bodies.

In the morgue, Arthur reluctantly reconnects with Heimish (Paul Kaye), his father’s coarse assistant, who doesn’t trust any outsider who tries to penetrate their religious bubble. His suspicion is only amplified by the fact that a young Jewish girl recently disappeared from their community, and everyone is a little on edge. Determined to prove that he hasn’t lost touch with his roots, Arthur prepares one of the morgue’s latest arrivals. Unfortunately, this one just happens to be a man who committed suicide as part of an elaborate ritual to seal a child-killing demon inside himself.

Arthur pulls a knife out of the man’s chest, only to find that it is engraved with an obscure Kabbalah passage revealing that a demon is held inside. That demon is none other than the Abyzou, a child-stealing demon who has plagued humanity for centuries. While the spirit manifests itself as a horrifying goat-like creature when it’s ready to go in for the kill, its most dangerous tactics are much more subtle. The Abyzou can mess with your mind, convincing its victims that they see things that aren’t there. It doesn’t stop manipulating its prey until it gets what it wants: a child to eat or an equivalent blood offering to temporarily satiate it. As Arthur begins to fear for the life of his wife and unborn child, the lapsed Jew and his distrusting Hasidic acquaintances are forced to reluctantly team up to perform a risky Kabbalistic ritual as their last hope for survival.

It’s impossible to proceed without discussing the film’s stunning production design. Each funeral home room utilizes its brilliant shades of scarlet and sapphire, with aureate lighting making every shot feel like it was drawn on yellowing storybook parchment. Ornate chandeliers and sweeping mahogany staircases invoke Gothic imagery at every turn, creating a disorienting effect that makes it feel as if the events happening in this building could have taken place at any point in the past 300 years. It’s a fitting choice for a movie about a man returning to a world he thought had outlived its usefulness, and it’s quite easy on the eyes as well.

Turning an esoteric belief system understood by only the most disciplined rabbis (and Madonna) into a crowd-pleasing movie was always going to be a Herculean task, and it’s one that “The Offering” wisely steers clear of. Instead, the film uses the coolest parts of the Kabbalah as stylistic window dressing for a more universal story about the role that our families’ faiths play in our lives. “The Offering” has less to do with Jewish mysticism than with the inherent tension between ancient traditions and a world that keeps telling us we don’t need them anymore. Leaving faith behind to fully devote oneself to a secularized world is a perfectly rational decision, but it’s often accompanied by an inexplicable lifelong pull toward something more profound. You don’t need to understand a word of Kabbalah to relate to Arthur’s struggle as a man who is never truly in or out.

In a saner world, a movie like “The Offering” would be enough to silence anyone still arguing over the nonsensical distinction between “elevated horror” movies and their allegedly lowbrow counterparts. Park’s film is 93 minutes of proof that allegory doesn’t have to come at the expense of entertainment. On the contrary: The film’s immaculate craftsmanship serves its boldest ideas and dumbest jump scares with equal abandon. By combining genuine human drama and an exploration of a mysterious sacred text with a ridiculously entertaining plot about a child-stealing demon, the film serves as a reminder of all the things that horror is uniquely equipped to accomplish. That should be reason enough to stop splitting things into arbitrary hierarchies.

Alas, that’s not the world we live in. But at least most of us don’t have to worry about the Abyzou showing up at our family morgue any time soon.

Grade: A-

DECAL will release “The Offering” in theaters on Friday, January 13.

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