THE VIGIL (2019)
Supernatural horror steeped in Orthodox Jewish culture comes from Blumhouse Productions and is released by IFC Midnight. The story tells of Yakov (Dave Davis), an emotionally troubled young man, who has left his Orthodox Jewish background and is out of work, in therapy and on medication. He is offered much needed money to be a Shomer for the night, someone who, in Jewish tradition, watches over and prays for the recently deceased till dawn. As he watches the body of a man called Litvak, he starts to realize there may be something malevolent in the house with him.
Yes, this story does evoke the classic flick The Viy, but is most definitely its own thing. The film is written and directed by Keith Thomas and is a very impressive feature debut. Thomas creates tension from almost the first scene by first establishing Yakov’s emotional and financial duress, but also then the tension between he and the members of the Orthodox Jewish community that want him back. Once Yakov enters the house, he finds out the first Shomer left in fear and the widow, Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen from Feast of the Seven Fishes), doesn’t want him there, either. As the spooky goings on in the house begin to escalate, Thomas lets us know that not only did Yakov witness the death of his little brother as a result of a hate crime, a death he feels responsible for, but that the recently deceased Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen) was obsessed with combating a demon called a Mazzik (Rob Tunstall). Thomas knows how to create an atmosphere of dread and knows how to generate chills simply with his camera. The combination of lighting, spooky sets and shot composition, go a long way in making this flick very spooky all in itself. There are some familiar tropes that come with these types of demonic haunting flicks, but Thomas knows how to use them very well and knows when to mix in some new twists, such as demonic manipulation of Yakov’s cellphone. The entity uses Yakov’s past trauma and the voices of those he trusts against him, and it is scary stuff. Add to all that a really effective score by Michael Yezerski (The Devil’s Candy) and some very unsettling cinematography by Zach Kuperstein (The Eyes of My Mother) and you have a legitimately scary movie.
The small cast is also very good, with Dave Davis pulling out a very strong, emotional performance of a man already on the edge, being pushed by something unearthly. He makes Yakov sympathetic, so we connect with him and feel badly as the demonic presence really puts him through the ringer. We also are behind him when he digs deep into his abandoned faith to fight back. Solid work! Lynn Cohen can be very spooky as Mrs. Litvak, a woman suffering from loss and a touch of Alzheimer’s, but also somewhat likable as we get to know her. Menashe Lustig is also good as Reb Shulem, an Orthodox Jewish community leader who wants Yakov to return to them and gives him this job as a way of coercing him back. A very good cast.
Keith Thomas delivers what might be the first truly scary horror flick of 2021. Despite the flick playing festivals and internationally since 2019, it is only now being released here in the U.S by the awesome folks at IFC Midnight. It is simply a good, old fashioned, scary movie that uses atmosphere, tension and some super creepy camera work to scare you. Thomas builds a lot of tension before the scares even begin and gives us an emotionally troubled main character to get put through a truly hellish night. All his characters have some history and depth to them, that the telling of which is woven cleverly into his simple, but layered story. A very spooky, scary horror with some nice emotional depth behind the proceedings, a refreshingly different cultural perspective and some really effective use of the familiar tropes and trappings. Keith Thomas is definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on. The Vigil is available to stream on Amazon Prime and other streaming outlets, while also in a limited theatrical release.
Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) candles.