What if Norman Bates gained control of the Power of God, and the British military had to use a nuclear warhead to stop him? You don’t have to imagine too hard, because it happened … in It!
Two decades before the novel It monopolized the neuter pronoun for horrordom, a British film starring Roddy McDowall and a giant raisin-textured statue tried to copy the style of Hammer’s Gothic horrors and the characterization of Psycho. It is as weirdly entertaining as it sounds, a deep-cut from the Anglo-horror cycle that deserves more attention than nothing at all, which is where it currently is. The film has also gone under the alternate titles Anger of the Golem and Curse of the Golem to make its central monster clearer. If only the filmmakers knew Stephen King would use a similar title years later, they could’ve stuck with one of those alternates and avoided search engine confusion.
I first saw It! as an impressionable elementary school kid in the early ‘80s. Local Los Angeles station KCOP Channel 13 frequently broadcast old horror movies during prime time weeknights in five-day blocks. This was how I first saw a number of classics like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and Carrie, although in edited-for-TV form. I also saw some obscure flicks that later vanished from the airwaves and public consciousness until home video found them. It! is one of those KCOP lost classics: I vividly remember the TV spots showing a shriveled-grape statue throttling people. It seemed terrifying to a nine-year-old, although I found the film itself less intimidating than the feverish commercials.
Information on It! was hard to find during the following decades. The movie never received a release on VHS in the US, and local stations stopped showing second-tier ‘50s and ‘60s movies when cable and home video took over. I began to wonder if I had dreamed up the movie—a situation most ‘80s kids have experienced in some form. The advent of the internet allowed me to locate data about the film (once I could remember the title), but I wasn’t able to re-experience this tiny corner of childhood until 2008 when It! appeared on DVD from Warner Bros., paired with The Shuttered Room. To date it hasn’t been released on Blu-ray and isn’t available on any legal streaming service.
For its subject, It! uses a monster that Hammer Films should have tackled when they started to search for new terrors to expand their bullpen: the golem, a medieval Jeweish legend about a stone statue animated through mystical means. The golem is a perfect horror movie figure with numerous metaphorical layers, but its screen history has been thin. The most famous film featuring a golem is the 1920 German expressionist classic, Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (“The Golem, How He Came Into the World), which It! mentions in passing. Der Golem adapted the most famous golem story, the legend of the Golem of Prague. That story was likely an invention of nineteenth-century German authors, although its protagonist is sixteenth-century historical figure Rabbi Judah Loew.
It! could be considered a sequel to the Golem of Prague, imagining what would happen if the indestructible statue was recovered in the twentieth century where another man brought it to life to serve his own purposes. This background might give you the sense that It! is a dark, sinister epic. But a film whose title ends in an exclamation mark is looking for light thrills and shocks, not a meditation on the darker aspects of medieval Jewish folklore. Director-writer-producer Herbert J. Leder, best known for the 1958 “killer brain” movie Fiend Without a Face, purposely tried to copy the appearance and feel of the Hammer movies that dominated the British market at the time. Although set in contemporary London and not Hammer’s standard Victorian stomping grounds, most of It! takes place in a Museum of Vaguely Old Things that fits the famous Hammer look.
Roddy McDowall plays Arthur Pimm, an assistant curator at a museum that receives a grotesque eight-foot statue in a shipment from Prague. McDowall and the curator find the intact statue in the ruins of the burnt-down warehouse, and only a few minutes later the curator dies mysteriously off-screen. Pimm notices the statue’s arms have shifted and it suspects it may have killed the curator, but chooses to say nothing about it. He steals the curator’s keys and then swipes a gem from the museum’s collection to give to his aged mother. Actually, his dead mother, whose desiccated corpse sits in a rocking chair in Pimm’s apartment where he can talk to it all evening about the cute girl at the office.
Looking at the scoreboard: five minutes into the film and we have a killer giant statue and an insane assistant museum curator who thinks Psycho is a self-help movie. Off to a good start.
Pimm has two goals: the museum curatorship and the sexy daughter of the dead curator, Ellen Grove (Jill Haworth). He gets neither. The museum board appoints an older curator over the inexperienced Pimm, and Ellen falls for Jim Parkins (Paul Maxwell), an expert from a New York museum inquiring into purchasing the statue. Parkins discovers inscriptions on the statue in Hebrew and suggests it might be the actual Golem of Prague. Pimm latches onto this idea and has a scholar of Hebrew translate the inscriptions. He then uses a magical scroll to animate the statue and send it after his enemies. People end up dead, bridges are wrecked, and few more jewels are draped around Mrs. Pimm’s brittle neck.
The Golem is an impressive design: a ridged and ghastly example of European “primitivism” (as the film defines the style). Some of its majesty vanishes when it comes to life and stumbles around as an obvious tall guy-in-a-suit and knock-off Frankenstein Monster. If the movie had the budget and time, the Golem would have made a freakish stop-motion animated creature.
The clumsiness of the living Golem is offset by the fun performance from Roddy McDowall, a performer who could overact without seeming to overact. McDowall makes Pimm appear lunatic from the start, even if viewers can’t put their fingers on exactly why—aside from the dead mother in his apartment. Pimm’s obsession with Ellen and his selfishness balance out his queasiness about the power that has come into his hands. Once Pimm understands the Golem is too potent for him to control and decides to destroy it, McDowall’s performance turns feverishly loopy. The film happily follows along on the crazy trail, which elevates an otherwise tepidly executed film into good camp.
The conclusion of It! is bonkers. No better word to describe it. Did Leder think audiences would believe for a moment that the military, in order to arrest a single minor criminal, would resort to using a nuclear weapon? If this is a standard British military solution, the London of this film must be the most dangerous spot on the planet, where police use anti-tank missiles on jaywalkers. It’s also amazing how rapidly the army gives up and goes for the nuclear option simply because a statue is blocking the gate to a cloister. The Golem is supposedly indestructible, but it moves slower than most versions of the bandaged mummy. Couldn’t the Queen muster enough men to run around this stumbling thing?
But I’m not complaining. The film doesn’t have the budget to make an apocalyptic ending stick (the army appears to consist of five men, in camouflaged helmets no less; are they worried about sniper attacks from rugby teams?) but bless Herbert J. Leder for going big. The movie is already strange enough, and it refuses to disappoint at the finish.
It! has never achieved even minor cult status. That doesn’t seem right. It’s not a great movie, but it makes so many weird choices that it rises to entertaining, and the ending is cult-movie gold. Warner Archive could rescue It! (probably paired with The Shuttered Room again), but I’d prefer they first get on that The Curse of Frankenstein Blu-ray we should’ve gotten years ago.