Review: ‘The Vigil’ (much fear I sense in you)

He will never ever leave you… if your heart is filled with gloom.

After separating from his Hasidic community based in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, Yakov (Dave Davis) is in an adjustment period with others like himself, unprepared for the world beyond what he’s known before. Short on funds and job prospects while also seeing a doctor for anxiety, a Rabbi friend from the old community (Menashe Lustig) approaches him with a lucrative offer: a traditional role as a Shomer, a watchman over the dead to ward off evil. He reluctantly accepts only to discover the deceased’s widow Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) objects to his staying, but he does so nonetheless. What transpires over the next five hours before dawn will challenge everything Yakov believes and fears, and no matter what happens, his life is about to change forever.

When it comes to banishing demons or casting out The Devil himself, Catholicism long ago cornered the market in the horror genre. Famously spearheaded by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, priests are sometimes portrayed in fiction as the prayer warriors of mankind… often at great personal sacrifice. Films like Stigmata challenge those black-and-white notions, showing a rift between those of faith and others blindly enforcing a doctrine, a reflection of modern times. What is seen far less often is how other religions deal with the entities that walk between worlds and seek entry through a bond with a vulnerable soul. Can a ninety-minute film introduce unaware audiences to a different kind of exorcism while still creating a connection with an unfamiliar lost soul?

The feature debut of writer-director Keith Thomas, The Vigil is a truly Jewish horror film in every sense of the phrase. Steeped in both mythology and scripture, the story is both metaphorically and literally a danger toward its main character. While similar folklore leans more often toward golems or dybbuks, this one features a mazzik or “harmful spirit.” There are rules — there are always rules — both for how to fall victim of one and how to be rid of it, but once the clock is ticking, knowledge isn’t enough; one must have the courage to do what must be done. Fans of horror and genre detail will find much of interest here, perhaps even enough to go online to discover just how much research went into getting it all perfectly correct.

The seeds of the story are planted in a Holocaust flashback, but what transpires runs far deeper than just physical or emotional trauma. While everything looks innately old-world, both the writer-director and the spirit itself prove to be tech-savvy, which isn’t exactly the main character’s forte. Utilizing practical effects, post-production manipulation, and an exceptional otherworldly soundtrack to create tension, the plot surprises with doing the unexpected before returning to what one dreads, mixing it up to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. The makers of The Babadook are credited in the trailer, a film that explored similar themes of personal demons, but The Vigil manages to do much more with even less, and that’s quite an accomplishment for a debut filmmaker. Go ahead; look up Tefillin after viewing, because if you’re not Jewish, you’re going to want to know.

The Curse of La Llorona from The Conjuring universe suffered from lacking what The Vigil excels at: embracing its concept and revealing what real monsters really look like, aka “us.” The Nun similarly failed in that as well but not in a way that couldn’t have been salvaged with minor edits and a reshoot. Resisting the temptation to accuse Keith Thomas of being the next Jordan Peele, exploring more Jewish folklore with his continued eye for detail could become its own thing, and we should all be watching his career with great interest.

The Vigil is rated PG-13 for terror, some disturbing/violent images, thematic elements, brief strong language, and heeding the advice of a song sung by Pebbles and Bam-Bam.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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