Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
In the horror film The Vigil, a Jewish New Yorker named Yakov (Dave Davis) agrees to act as an overnight "shomer" — someone who watches over the body of a recently-deceased person — despite Davis' character having recently broken from his observant religious community. Much spookiness ensues as Yakov must deal with not just supernatural forces but also the unnerving behavior of the deceased's dementia-stricken widow, Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen).
"The Vigil is essentially about a man who has left the Hasidic community in which he was raised and is trying to make his way in the secular world," says writer-director Keith Thomas. "He's struggling, it's difficult, and he is contacted by a former rabbi to come back into the community and sit 'the vigil,' which is an ancient ritual of watching over a dead person's body before it is buried. He agrees to do this for money and, when he gets to the house where he will be watching this body, he realizes that he's not alone in the house, that there is something unearthly there with him."
Below, Thomas talks more about the film, his circuitous career route, and his upcoming adaptation of Stephen King's Firestarter.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Have you ever sat vigil yourself?
KEITH THOMAS: I've never been a shomer. I know a lot of people who have, both family members and friends. It's something that I was familiar with. I also studied at a rabbinical school, so I have a background in ritual and researching this sort of thing. Prior to being a filmmaker, I was in health care and I have spent enough time around bodies to kind of know that sensation of being with the dead.
To me, it seems like a terrifying thing to do — even if nothing happens.
For most shomers — I would say 99 percent of shomers — they're family and friends, who are watching the body, and they're doing it in very short shifts. They're not there that long. But in the ultra orthodox community, in the Hasidic community, there are paid shomers, there are people who do this for extra cash on the side. And, yeah, it's a little different when it's someone you do not know and you're just alone with the body.
I'm slightly amazed this isn't the 100th horror film made about this subject.
Right? Right? Isn't that strange? When I wrote it, I was like, wow, it's crazy that no one has made this and I saw a real opportunity. It turned out, when we were going into production, that there were some shomer scripts floating around Hollywood for a while. I never read any of them, so I don't know where they took it, but certainly the set up is ideal for a horror film.
You're lucky. It could have been like when there two competing volcano movies or two asteroid movies.
Right. Or, when was like three or four trapped-in-the-deep-sea-with-monsters movies.
You'd be talking about DeepStar Six, The Abyss…
And Leviathan! Right. [Laughs]
How did you cast Dave Davis in the lead role?
He's a character actor who's been in a lot of stuff. He's in Logan and The Walking Dead and True Detective and all these different things where he's kind of very chameleon-like. I knew from the beginning that this film really hinged on the central performance, and a lot of it without dialogue, a lot of it just being afraid, and being in this oppressive atmosphere. It was a gut thing in terms of casting Dave. I could just see it on his face and in his performances and then talking to him. He threw himself into this. Dave didn't know any Yiddish before this film, he came out early and immersed himself in the culture. It's not just Yiddish, it's a very particular dialect inside that community. So, he was incredible, he was amazing to work with, he really gave it his all. He was exhausted by the end of the shoot, as you could imagine.
Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
The film costars Lynn Cohen, who passed away last year.
Yes, we lost Lynn Cohen and she was quite incredible. Lynn really threw herself into the role. I mean, 86 and very frail, a tiny tiny lady, but just such a storied career, from Munich to Sex and the City, which she's very well known for, and all of these amazing roles. For her, it was very personal, she was pulling on her own past and her own family history. But she also relished being the creepy old lady in the house, she really got a kick out of scaring Dave.
You mentioned you had an earlier career, how did you get into filmmaking?
Just weirdly stumbling along. For me, there's been two drives, the career drive of me being practical about my life, and actually paying mortgage, and raising a family, and clinical research is that path. I suppose the creative drive won out. I was a screenwriter on the side when I was doing clinical research, and some of those scripts sold, and I was able to quit my day job and got to the point where I convinced my wife to let me use our savings to make a short film, to prove myself as a filmmaker, and that's what led to the Vigil.
You're currently prepping a new adaptation of the Stephen King novel Firestarter. What can you tell us about that?
Firestarter is going well. We are gearing up to shoot and I'm really happy with the cast we've got. I'm excited. It's going yo be a different Firestarter from the '80s Firestarter, but still very very true to what I see as the core of that novel, the very emotional core.
The Vigil opens Friday in select theaters, digital, and VOD. Watch the film's trailer below.