First premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival before finally making its streaming debut on Shudder, ‘Attachment’ isn’t the first time the movie explored Jewish mythology within the horror genre. Besides, we already have Jewish-themed horror movies like ‘Hanukkah’ and ‘The Golem’ (both released in 2019) and, of course, ‘The Vigil’ in 2021.
In ‘Attachment,’ which marks the feature film debut of writer-director Gabriel Bier Gislason (yes, he’s the son of acclaimed Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier of ‘Brothers’ (2004) and ‘In a Better World’ (2010) fame), he combines the Jewish-themed horror with a queer romance angle. We are first introduced to the British grad student Leah (‘Game of Thrones’ alum Ellie Kendrick) and a has-been Danish actress Maja (Josephine Park), reducing to an elf-dressing children’s book storyteller in a meet-cute moment in a library. They soon get to know each other over a cup of tea, and it doesn’t take long before they fall for each other.
At the beginning of their love-at-first-sight relationship, we see Leah and Maja have a great time together. In fact, Leah loves Maja so much that she decides to cancel her trip back to London so she can be with her instead. But there’s something odd about Leah, beginning with her strange mumbling and even sleepwalks at night. Then one day, she suffers from a sudden seizure that ends up breaking her ankle.
Maja soon accompanies Leah back to her London home located in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. However, Leah’s mother, Chana (Sofie Gråbøl) doesn’t seem to be all that welcoming of Maja’s presence for some reason. Maja subsequently learns that Chana isn’t just an overprotective mother but a highly-superstitious one devoted to the Jewish tradition. As Maja also stays together in the same room with Leah, she begins to hear the creaking noises of footsteps and a mysterious light-up candle at night.
Maja gets to know Lev (David Dencik) as well, who runs a local bookstore and knows well about Jewish mythology from the Witch of Endor to dybbuk. This malevolent spirit possesses a living human body. But Maja simply calls it ‘like a ghost,’ even though Lev insists dybbuk is nothing resembling a ghost. This is one of the unexpectedly lighthearted moments that Gislason’s added touch of comedy (another moment involving Maja associated kabbalah with Madonna) strikes a nice balance here without making everything feel overwhelming or awkwardly misplaced.
Gislason takes his time to tell his story in a subdued manner – a result that might not sit well with genre fans expecting ‘Attachment’ to be an all-out scary Jewish-themed horror movie. Instead, the horror elements here are more of a slow-burn dread with the help of Johan Carøe’s ominous score. It’s creepy and atmospheric without relying on the obligatory jump scares typically found in many horror movies, which turns out to be a refreshing change of pace. I find the build-up of dread and tension is effective because of how Gislason uses Jewish mythology and the concept of fear of the unknown from Maja’s outsider perspective to evoke such a feel and tone.
But what really makes ‘Attachment’ a mostly cut above from your usual horror movie is the onscreen chemistry between Ellie Kendrick’s Leah and Josephine Park’s Maja that feels like a genuine, lived-in couple. They deliver standout performances, and the same also goes for Sofie Gråbøl in her commanding presence as the authoritarian mother while David Dencik is equally praiseworthy in his dry-witted supporting turn as Lev.
Gislason’s screenplay emphasizes more on the trials and tribulations of Leah and Maja’s relationship while using the Jewish-themed horror as a metaphorical touch of love, bonding as well as the family tension torn between the tradition, superstition, and helicopter parenting related to Maja and her mother, Chana. This, in turn, helps to make the story all the more involving, and I’m glad Gislason doesn’t crank it up into a melodramatic excess.
Still, as much as I admired the strong dynamics between Leah, Maja, and Chana and the depiction of its queer romance in a universal way of falling in love and the restrained horror approach, ‘Attachment’ falters in the third act. Let’s just say it all feels anticlimactic after all the deliberate build-up and such. It doesn’t help either when Gislason decided to wrap up his story rather neatly, which botches the opportunity of turning this into a Jewish-themed horror classic. For all the unusual and supernatural occurrences and complications throughout the movie, an easy resolution just wouldn’t cut it. I figure Gislason can do better than giving us a limp payoff that doesn’t justify what he has shown us earlier.
The movie’s unsatisfying conclusion aside, ‘Attachment’ remains a promising feature-length debut from Gabriel Bier Gislason, proving he has what it takes to make something refreshingly different for the horror genre.