There’s no culture or faith that horror cinema has left untouched, and that goes for Judaism as well, be it with 1915’s The Golem, 2009’s The Unborn or 2015’s Demon. The Vigil is another work in that tradition, mining Jewish customs for a disquieting tale about unholy things that scream, claw, and corrupt in the dead of night. Writer/director Keith Thomas’ feature debut cannily filters its suspense through the prism of personal—and inherited—Jewish trauma, and given that it concerns a lonely, tormented man going mad while trapped inside a house, it also has a quarantine creepiness that amplifies its potency.
Now available on VOD (following its debut at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival), The Vigil focuses on Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), a young New Yorker whom we first meet at an evening get-together with fellow Jews who are striving to acclimate to everyday mainstream life now that they’ve fled their Hasidic communities of Borough Park, Brooklyn (à la the men and women depicted in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 2017 documentary One of Us, as well as in last year’s Netflix hit Unorthodox). One look at Yakov in the bathroom mirror, swallowing a pill and mustering the courage to join the group, is enough to convey his unstable state, which we soon learn is partly due to his bumpy transition into secular society. Having failed to get a job because he didn’t have a resume (which he then tried to write on loose-leaf paper), and still amazed at the fact that his smartphone has a flashlight, he’s a figurative babe in the woods, struggling to learn—and accept—the myriad aspects of this strange new world.
Yakov is committed to his new path but hasn’t fully extricated himself from his ultra-orthodox ties, as evidenced by the fact that after this meeting (and his clumsy handling of a woman’s date proposal), he’s met on the street by old friend Reb Shulem (Menashe’s Menashe Lustig), a rabbi who wants him to sit vigil as a Shomer (i.e. watchman) for a recently deceased man named Ruben Litvak. As is Jewish practice, the Shomer must provide comfort to the dead by spending the night with them, reciting Psalms as a way to comfort their souls and protect them from evil spirits. Having just broken with his religious family and friends, Yakov has no interest in this job. Yet with no means of paying his rent, Shulem’s cash offer—which Yakov gets him to increase—is too good to pass up, and he begrudgingly accepts the task, figuring it’ll be merely a five-hour inconvenience.
That other Shomers have already bailed on this gig (apparently out of “fear”) is the initial tip-off, to us and to Yakov, that something is amiss here, and The Vigil doesn’t waste time getting down to supernatural business. After meeting the spooky Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen), and learning that her husband was a Holocaust survivor and recluse who never left his house and was estranged from his children and grandchildren, Yakov settles down for the night. Almost immediately, things take a turn for the worse, beginning with movement from beneath the sheet covering Mr. Litvak in the clan’s dimly-lit living room. Yakov takes a nap in an armchair beside the corpse and has a dream about a harrowing prior incident in which he and his young brother were assaulted by anti-Semites. When he wakes, he has a bizarre message on his phone: a video clip of himself, slumbering in the chair, shot by Mrs. Litvak, who’s seen caressing his hair and cheek.
More unnatural events soon follow, including the appearance of another dead body lying in the kitchen, an unhelpful conversation with his therapist (Fred Melamed), and a drinking glass whose water suddenly turns dark and icky, causing Yakov to gag and choke on whatever it was he’d just consumed. Shortly thereafter, answers come to light courtesy of Mrs. Litvak, who reveals that she deliberately alienated her brood in order to protect them, as well as via an old home movie that Yakov finds playing in the residence’s basement. In it, Mr. Litvak states that he’s plagued by a Mazzik, an ancient parasitic demon that followed him home from the Buchenwald concentration camp and appears with its head turned completely around. Thomas has already provided glimpses of this WWII incident in an oblique prologue sequence, and he now has Mr. Litvak explain that the only way to prevent the Mazzik from gaining control of one’s soul is to burn its true face on the first night it appears—something Mr. Litvak apparently failed to do, resulting in his continuing damnation.
Even after disclosing the nature of its insanity, The Vigil remains a consistently unsettling endeavor, thanks to patient camerawork that glides along Mr. Litvak’s in-repose body and through the house’s hallways like a specter stalking its prey, and portentous compositions that ask viewers to inspect them for signs of paranormal activity. Matching those sharp visuals is a soundscape that segues on a dime between malevolent din and ominous silence, the latter of which is routinely employed to nerve-wracking effect. Even when the action itself is somewhat familiar, Thomas’ enveloping aesthetics are chilling, and in the accomplished Davis, the film boasts a sturdy dramatic center of attention.
Most inviting of all, however, is the writer/director’s depiction of his highly particular milieu, and the rules and rituals that govern it. Specificity is key to both the material’s scares and its empathy, which mounts as the film divulges more about Yakov’s anguish and guilt, and the way it makes him vulnerable to the forces intent on consuming him. The Vigil is a story about Jewish suffering, whether today or during the Holocaust, and how it feeds on its hosts, isolating, warping, and debilitating them. Moreover, it’s about the futility of trying to simply shun, or run away from, that distress. With efficient and unnerving skill, it melds traditional genre conventions with uniquely Jewish elements (for example, the tefillin, which Yakov dons toward the end of his ordeal) to paint a somber—and tentatively hopeful—portrait of the need to directly confront the past in order to overcome and escape it.