Plenty of horror movies draw on religious imagery in straightforward tales of good versus evening. As a subgenre, however, religious horror centers its conflict on either questions of faith or the dangers of dogmatic faith. There’s no shortage of horror movies seeped in Christian faith and imagery. But traditional Jewish horror movies are in short supply. After a 2019 premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), IFC Midnight snatched up the North American distribution rights for Keith Thomas’ directorial debut, The Vigil. To date, critics have been overwhelmingly impressed with Thomas’ debut effort.
Disconnected from his Orthodox Jewish faith, Yakov struggles to carve out a new life for himself in New York. And his younger brother’s tragic death exacerbates his crisis of faith. Though he’s initially reluctant, a former rabbi convinces Yakov to act as a shomer – a community member who sits in vigil over the deceased through the night to protect their soul. As the night progresses, Yakov struggles to discern between traumatic flashbacks and the growing fear that he’s not alone. Soon he believes that a demonic entity attached to the deceased is now seeking to consume him.
The Vigil Overcomes A Small Budget With Haunting Production Values and Terse Mood
Straight out of the gate, The Vigil establishes a tone of increasing dread that’s omnipotent throughout the movie. First-time director Keith Thomas shows patiently sets up his scares, allowing this mood to carry audiences into the more standard haunting shocks. And there are a few familiar haunted house tropes here from flickering candles to shadowy figures in screen corners. In addition to its terse atmosphere, Thomas orchestrates a few good jumps and shocks. One trip into the basement and a FaceTime call should have audiences squirming. Zach Kuperstein’s beautiful cinematography and Michael Yezrski’s powerful soundtrack earns big assists in the scares department.
In addition to its terse atmosphere, Thomas orchestrates a few good jumps and shocks.
If there’s a criticism of The Vigil it’s that it does hue closely to haunted house and supernatural horror narratives. Not much of the Jewish mythology of its demonic entity, the Mazzikin, is explored. Of course, this also means that Thomas doesn’t patronize audiences with lazy expository dialogue. And The Vigil’s impressive production values far exceeds its budget. Even its ‘less is more approach’ with the Mazzikin boasts impressive craftsmanship and a deft understanding of what truly frightens viewers.
The Vigil Grapples with Emotional Themes of Grief, Trauma, and Forgiveness
In spite of its familiar horror elements, The Vigil distinguishes itself with ambitious, bigger storytelling. In addition to directing, Thomas penned the movie’s screenplay, Alongside its straightforward haunting, Thomas delves into Yakov’s struggling disenfranchisement from his faith and community. The Vigil also parallels Yakov’s trauma and guilt with Mr Litvak’s traumatic history, which bookends the movie. To be sure Thomas tackles quite a bit here thematically. Arguably, the movie’s handling of its religious subtext is ambiguous and, as a result, less satisfying. But The Vigil hits an emotional crescendo with Yakov’s traumatic reckoning and willingness to forgive himself. What it offers audiences is a deep connection with Yakov that elevates the movie and cuts across religious faiths.
…Yakov is an instantly sympathetic character.
Given its mostly single setting and small cast, The Vigil hinges heavily on Dave Davis’s (The Domestics) performance. What Davis delivers is a complex, layered performance that quite respectfully untangles the struggles with mental health and trauma. Courtesy of Davis’ work, Yakov is an instantly sympathic character. Though Lynn Cohen’s role as grieving widow Mrs Litvak is smaller in scale it’s no less impressive. In just a handful of scenes, Cohen acts as the emotional glue that holds together the parallel stories of Yakov’s and her late husband’s grief. Moreover, she demonstrates a finesseful treatment of dementia that lends her character a …
The Vigil An Emotionally Cathartic Horror Experience
As a directorial debut, The Vigil is a triumph of horror filmmaking. The soundtrack, cinematography, and performances transcend the movie’s more limited budget. Moreover, a steady grasp on atmosphere alongside a ‘less is more approach’ ensures The Vigil succeeds as pure horror, even when some elements feel familiar. If Thomas’ more meditative examination of faith feels unfocused, The Vigil’s parallels of trauma, grief, and forgiveness provide an emotionally powerful conclusion to the movie.