US Title: Curse of the Golem
As its original US movie title Curse of the Golem implies, It! concerns a Golem. The concept of the Golem has been part of the Jewish (and wider eastern European) story-telling tradition for centuries. The original golem story concerns Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a 16th century Rabbi of Prague, who was said to have known the secret of creation. He took a lump of clay and created a man-servant which followed its master’s every bidding, but, because of its limited intelligence, the golem could not be controlled. And yet it grew more powerful every day. Obviously, it had to be destroyed.
In the early 20th century, the publication of both a novel and a dramatic poem in Yiddish led to several successful theatre adaptations of the legend. I should add that I looked this up because the movie doesn’t tell you anything about the background of the golem, except to say that the right master can control it. That right master is, of course, our evil lead, Arthur Primm (McDowall, for some reason credited as MacDowall in the title sequence), an ambitious but somewhat disturbed museum curator with a thing about his mother and a passion for the boss’s daughter (Haworth).
When a golem is delivered to the museum, Primm’s boss is mysteriously killed and young Arthur realises that the golem is to blame. Discovering the secret of how to control the monster for his own ends, he uses it at first to steal antiquities to take home to his dead mother, whom he keeps in the living room, very much like that nice young Norman Bates in Psycho. When a handsome American (Maxwell) is brought in to replace his boss, a job which Arthur clearly expected to get himself, his mind turns to murder.
From here, the movie, which started pretty shoddily, goes downhill. The golem brings down a bridge across the Thames, killing hundreds, then breaks free of his master to go on his own rampage, eventually requiring the Army to intervene. But the thing just won’t die.
McDowall plays the whole thing as if he was actually in a film of the quality of Psycho, rather than a cheap sub-Hammer British horror with some very unspecial effects. He’s far too good to be in dross like this. He actually manages to win viewer sympathy for a man who might be an incestuous necrophiliac and who definitely causes the death of hundreds, if not thousands. Meanwhile, the monster is clearly a guy in a rubber suit moving slowly. Very slowly. Like cold treacle. With the rapidity of a glacier, is what I’m saying.
The cast apparently had a miserable time making the film, and it shows. Maxwell and Haworth (the original Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway) make an unconvincing couple who appear bored at the idea of their own impending deaths.
Writer-director Howard J Leder directed five films in his brief career and he wrote all of them, so you can’t fault the man’s commitment to his own unique vision. It’s hard to find anything else to say about HJL that’s positive, except that I will make it a point to go out and research him, because I am intrigued beyond words by a man for whom It was but a follow-up to his best-known movie, Frozen Dead (1966), in which mad scientist Dana Andrews tries to revive cryogenically frozen Nazis.