The Offering (2022)
Directed by Oliver Park
Screenplay by Hank Hoffman
Starring Nick Blood, Emily Wiseman, Paul Kaye, & Allan Corduner.
Horror / Thriller
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay
You’ve been warned.
Oliver Park’s The Offering is an eerie tale of demonic possession and family troubles, beginning when an old Jewish scholar dies while trying to battle a demon and his corpse winds up at a funeral home belonging to Saul (Allan Corduner), whose son Art (Nick Blood), along with pregnant wife Claire (Emily Wiseman), suddenly shows up back home after years with no real explanation. As Art and Saul catch up, Heimish (Paul Kaye)—a close friend of the family who works with Saul—questions why the son returned. Before any of them know it, the funeral home is overtaken by the powerful demonic force that the scholar previously tried to stop, and everyone has to keep their wits about them, or else fall prey to the demon’s tricks.
While The Offering might seem, on its surface, like typical horror fare for the demonic possession subgenre, its use of Jewish folklore and a concentration on Jewish characters makes it more interesting than a lot of the Christian-obsessed demon films that have flooded the horror genre over the decades. Hank Hoffman’s screenplay embeds a tense family drama into a demonic possession plot, then through the Jewish folklore and characters we get a fresh perspective on the intersection between horror and religious belief that questions the lengths to which people will go to sacrifice for others and attempt to make amends. Along the way we also get a very brief crash course in a few concepts from Judaism, tucked into the film’s drama and horror.
The most compelling character in The Offering is Art because he’s somewhat drifted from his family, and in a sense from Judaism, so his eventual battle with “the taker of children,” Abyzou, becomes a greater battle that’s just as much about his own faith. It makes sense then that Park spends a lot of time throughout the film exploring bits and pieces of Jewish folklore, some directly and others indirectly.
Most prominently and earliest we see the scholar’s blue amulet, in which he traps the demon Abyzou. Thought it’s not spoken outright, the blue amulet is likely a form of nazar, an eye-shaped amulet meant to protect against the evil eye. On top of that, there’s a passage (Pesachim 111b) in the Talmud—the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law (halakha) and Jewish theology—that suggests amulets were used by ancient rabbis to repel demons. In a later scene when Art goes to the scholar’s apartment we see that the scholar’s keychain has a hamsa on it. A hamsa is another amulet; a palm-shaped one. Yet another amulet meant to ward off the evil eye.
At various points in The Offering we see Jewish belief and folklore collide through pretty subtle imagery. Perhaps the best is when the mezuzah in Art’s bedroom doorway splits after things start to go sideways at the funeral home. Again, for my fellow gentiles, a mezuzah is a piece of parchment in a decorative case and inscribed with specific Hebrew verses from the Torah, consisting of the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael. The mezuzah has been interpreted as functioning like an amulet to repel evil, and early Rabbinic sources lend belief in the mezuzah’s anti-demonic function. Hoffman’s screenplay includes a lot of Judaism in smart ways that don’t initially jump out at the viewer, particularly non-Jewish viewers unfamiliar with Judaism or its many customs. This tactic is brilliant because Christian-based horror films about demons typically do little explaining for any non-Christian viewers, so why should Jewish horror have to be filled with expository dialogue about Jewish practices?
When Saul talks to Claire about Judaism he reflects on why Jews and their religion have been misunderstood, telling her: “It‘s the burden of investing so much in internal meaning, it‘s hard for outsiders to see.” Claire’s specific vulnerability to the darkness plaguing the funeral home comes in here, too, being non-Jewish in the midst of a demonic possession. Whereas Saul, though a bit sceptical at first, understands there’s something otherworldly happening, Claire, as the religious outsider, can’t understand that the nightmarish visions she starts to have are not part of a dreamworld but part of reality, as Abyzou comes for her unborn child. Claire has a terrible nightmare, even before things get too crazy at the funeral home, in which she sees the dead scholar attacking her, prying at her pregnant belly, a grim foreshadowing of what’s to come.
Saul talks more about Judaism with Claire and a particular line is far more significant than most non-Jewish viewers will comprehend: “Food connects the body to the soul.” For better or worse, by the end of the film Art comes to understand part of what his religious faith is all about: connecting the body and the soul here on Earth as one entity; that what hurts the body, hurts the soul, and vice versa. After Saul’s heart gives out, due to his confrontation with Abyzou, Heimish tells Art that the latter broke Saul’s heart and that’s why the old man died. This ties into the connection of body and soul, as Heimish suggests an emotional blow to the soul for Saul is what caused physical death. We often say such things about elderly couples when one of them dies and the other follows soon after, and through Judaism’s view of no division between body-soul this becomes a tragic albeit darkly beautiful reality in the film.
In a sense, Art is like Claire at the beginning—an outsider—though unlike her he’s actually Jewish, so there’s an extra layer of alienation with Art and that’s a large part of what The Offering is all about as he’s forced to rapidly get back in touch with his religious upbringing in order to, hopefully, fight off Abyzou. Things don’t go the way Art hopes, but his experience with the demon takes him from being alienated from his family and religion, to being deeply connected with his faith, his family, and his old neighbourhood again.
When Art has Heimish bring in a Kabbalist to help with the demon’s presence at the funeral home, the Kabbalist says: “Only we determine how much good and evil enter our realm.” This statement sums up the way Art has not only learned a lesson throughout the film, it likewise touches on how Art’s actions, whether accidentally breaking the amulet in which Abyzou was contained or attempting to silently use his father’s house as collateral to shore up his poor finances, have affected everyone around him, not just himself. Art invited bad things into his father’s home, and his life in general, through his poor decisions, and that’s why he’s the one who winds up potentially having to sacrifice everything to save Claire.
The demon Abyzou demands: “A life for a life.” Art tries to make amends with his father and protect his pregnant wife Claire; unfortunately, the demon is much too tricky. But everything in The Offering ultimately revolves around Art and his realisations about how he’s brought evil into his realm that’s all but destroyed his entire world. Even though there’s a dark, depressing outcome to Art and Claire’s fight with Abyzou, there’s a small piece of The Offering that is full of heart and love, and that little piece dominates even the film’s most haunting moments.