By Sara Kinne-Lugo
I had been looking forward to seeing THE VIGIL since we spoke about its trailer on our livestream show The Weekly Creepy a few episodes ago. I’m happy to report that it did not disappoint. In fact, while trying to watch it alone at night I became so unnerved that I paused it and left the rest for the daytime. Written and directed by Keith Thomas (his directorial debut) and rooted in Jewish lore, this eerie supernatural thriller plays up two frightening themes; demonology, and the battle to maintain one's mental health while processing trauma.
Dave Davis delivers a gut-wrenching performance as Yakov, a young man trying to find his way after leaving the orthodox Jewish community. He’s struggling to make ends meet and confesses to his support group that he’s reached the point where he’s having to choose between food or his medication. We later come to realize that the prescription he’s taking is to help with PTSD and that the past traumatic experience may have been the reason he decided to leave.
The entire film takes place in one evening in Brooklyn's Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood. On that particular night, Yakov is approached by his former rabbi, Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), with a paid offer to sit the vigil and serve as an overnight “shomer” for a recently deceased community member. The shomer is tasked with watching over and comforting the deceased’s soul until the body is taken to be buried. As we are already aware, Yakov is strapped for cash so he bargains to get double the pay - $400 to watch over the body for 5 hours. He’s been a shomer before, and he can tell the rabbi is desperate. As they walk together to the Litvak residence, Shulem explains, rather nonchalantly, that the previous shomer had left abruptly out of fear.
When they arrive at the residence, something seems off with the widowed Mrs. Litvak (expertly portrayed by Lynn Cohen in one of her final roles before her passing). Upon meeting Yakov, she tells him directly, “you have to leave now,” before making her way upstairs to her bedroom as she sings quietly to herself. Shulem chalks it up to her dementia and frailty and leaves Yakov to his duty. Further, into the evening, Mrs. Litvak, seeing that Yakov hasn’t left, begins to confide in him (or is she cautioning him?). Her husband was a holocaust survivor, broken by memories. “They bite,” she says, “and the biting never stops.”
As the evening passes, Yakov grapples to determine if the horrors he witnesses are really happening, or attributed to his rapidly declining mental health. Long lingering scenes cause the viewer to squint along with him, almost willing a sheet or shadow to move. I realized I was holding my breath throughout a lot of the first half of the movie. The second half picks up the pace as we meet the cause of everything wrong in the house. I won’t spoil it for you aside from a warning - “Mazzik wants to see your pain.”
THE VIGIL is one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in recent years. The writing, tone, and superb acting come together beautifully to create a film that, while supernatural in nature, is also relatable. It’s a fresh take on horror that doesn't rely too heavily on gimmicky tropes but rather focuses on having the viewer feel the pain and fear along with its lead character. I’d highly recommend watching it, with headphones if possible, but you might want to keep the lights on.
THE VIGIL opens in select theatres, on digital platforms, and VOD on February 26, 2021.