Horror Hero Dr. Mikel Koven Brings Terror to the Toronto Jewish Film Festival


Dr. Mikel Koven is a fascinating fellow. Born in Toronto and based in the UK, Dr. Koven has made the academic study of horror and dark fantasy films his life’s work, penning such badass books as 2010’s BLAXPLOITATION FILMS, a thorough study of the vital exploitation subgenre and 2006’s LA DOLCE MORTE, reflection and analysis of the giallo film. He teaches, lectures, provides research for such hit supernatural programs as HBO’s TRUE BLOOD, and he serves as the President of the International Society of Contemporary Legend.

Beginning this weekend, Dr. Koven will be back on the mean streets of Toronto to play a pivotal part in the 22nd Annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival, running May 1-11. Koven has helped curate the more fantastical entries this year and FANGORIA approves of his choices. May 3rd sees Koven and director Larry Cohen introducing the filmmaker’s 1976 metaphysical thriller GOD TOLD ME TO (Cohen will be appearing via Skype for a Q&A) and on May 10th, the good Doc will be on hand to introduce and add context to Roman Polanski’s immortal 1967 horror-comedy THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.

Dr. Koven has indeed made a career out of thoughtful genre film discussion, examining cultural tropes in the process. It was a passion started very early on while killing time as a tot watching Canadian TV and haunting downtown multiplexes.

“I remember watching Elwy Yost’s ‘Saturday Night at the Movies’ when I was 10,” Koven tells FANGORIA. “It was, I think a FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA double bill and that night, Elwy’s guest was a young Jewish horror filmmaker from Toronto who brought a couple of minutes of his latest film and I thought, my God, this is my idol! And that was my introduction to David Cronenberg. And he brought THE BROOD, which scared me to death and he did it with only two minutes of non-contextualized filmmaking, The other primal memory I have as a kid watching horror, was when they brought in the ‘AA’ rating to Ontario [the now defunct AA, or “Adult Accompaniment”, rating dictated that children under 14 could only attend the film if accompanied by an adult – Ed] and one of the first movies they released was a re-release of HALLOWEEN, downgraded from an R to an AA. I saw it at the Eaton Center theatre and I remember finding myself in the fetal position in the seat, hyperventilating. Strangers were asking if I was okay. So I’ve been chasing that ever since.”

One would think, being a good Jewish boy, that an obsession with malevolent dwarves and masked serial killers would go firmly against the grain of familial expectations and indeed, that was the case.

GodPoster“Oh, they thought there was something wrong with me and they still do!” jokes Koven. “See, I went to New York to study the classics. Then I went to the UK to do my Masters and I was working with a respected academic – who shall remain nameless—who had me pegged as a white, middle class male oppressor and I was arguing with her and I said, ‘you know what, fuck you, I’m Jewish, I got the Holocaust, what do you have?” and she went, ‘Oh you do know what suffering is about!’ and I’m like, come on, really? The only thing more embarrassing than trotting that last defense out was that it worked! So this badge of ethnic identity, I felt it needed to be understood. So that has been my mission, to understand the pre-conceptions we have of Jews, often using horror as a hook.”

Prior to the screening of GOD TOLD ME TO, at 7:45 PM at The Koffler House (569 Spadina Cres) Koven will be giving a free talk about just that, the role of Jews in the genre.

“My talk in Toronto will be in two different parts,” he says. “The first will look at things like, well, Detective Kinderman for example, in the EXORCIST; a Jew who exists in essentially a non-Jewish world. Then there’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and the Polanski film which represent the Jew as the outsider. The second part will be fun. I’ll look at Jewish folklore and what in that can be exploited for movies. Things like The Golem and The Dybbuk. I mean, in the last couple of years we’ve had two very strange Dybbuk films, THE POSSESSION and THE UNBORN, both problematic but both interesting in how they use the mythology. The UNBORN was better rooted in the legend, but THE POSSESSION was a better film, I think.”

In respect to The Dybbuk legend, Koven and the TJFF will also be screening a very rare Sidney Lumet directed TV film called THE DYBBUK, a fascinating and rarely seen production. “Lumet’s THE DYBBUK is not a roller coaster ride. Rather, it’s very slow, philosophical. Rather than a horror story, it’s discussion about love. Can you love someone so much that you cannot let go of them even after death? It’s an interesting film.”

Interesting indeed, as is the entire program, and though the screening of Polanski’s signature vampire film promises the superior cinema, it’s the left-field choice of the theological sci-fi Cohen picture that really stands out.

“That was my suggestion,” notes Koven. “I was obviously very familiar with Cohen’s Blaxploitation pictures, but when it came to horror, I didn’t think the TJFF would be interested in Q or THE STUFF or IT’S ALIVE. But I thought GOD TOLD ME TOO would generate debate. And Robin Wood wrote that amazing piece on it back in the 1970s, so it has that critical background.”

For more on the fest and the amazing horror content therein, visit the Toronto Jewish Film Festival

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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