The Vigil takes what could have been a dull concept and manages to inject some fresh energy and a new sense of mythology thanks to its Jewish roots, in this superbly tense horror movie from writer/director Keith Thomas.
We’ve all seen horror films that deal with demonic forces and the themes of possession and trauma. One of the most famous horror films of all time is The Exorcist, and whilst there are lots of films like this, one of the things that they almost always seem to have in common is Christian mythology. Whether it’s seeking answers in the Bible or going to a priest for help, horror films have been using Christian mythology for decades. The Vigil, on the other hand, turns this expectation around, instead taking viewers into lesser known territory with Judaism taking a major place within the story.
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The film follows Yakov (Dave Davis), a former Orthodox Jew who has left his old community following a tragic incident in his life. Struggling to get by on his own, he’s turned to a support group to help him through this difficult time. Then one night he’s approached by an old friend who offers to pay him a big chunk of cash to perform Shemira for the night.
Shemira, for those not in the know, is the act of watching over a body from the time of their passing until their burial, something that’s done to protect the body from spirits and demons. Whilst this is usually done by close family, in this case the deceased has no one to watch over him, so Yakov agrees to perform the task. Once he arrives at the small home he finds the deceased waiting for him, along with the man’s frail wife, and settles in to keep vigil over the night. But very soon Yakov begins to experience strange events, and starts to believe that some dark force is at work in the home.
The Vigil makes things very clear from the start that this is a film that will focus heavily not just on Jewish myth and religion, but Jewish culture as well, and director Keith Thomas has spoken in interviews about how his own experience in the Jewish community and with his faith inspired a lot of this film. The story deals not only with dark forces, in this case an entity called a Mazzik, but also what it means to be Jewish. Every character we get to know over the course of the film has had their life influenced by their culture, whether it’s Yakov who’s run away from his faith, his rabbi friend who’s trying to bring him back to his community, or even the deceased Mr Litvak (Ronald Cohen) whose life was shaped by his experience during the Holocaust.
These are all areas rich with story, and explore themes that will be familiar to most, but through a new lens that makes The Vigil instantly stand out. It manages to include the Holocaust in a way that doesn’t feel cheap, as its inclusion in some films feels a bit dicey, but this will largely be due to the fact that this is a film made by the Jewish community, and those are events that have altered the lives of many in that community. Its inclusion here is only peripheral, with an awful event from that time acting as a catalyst for the events of the film. It’s a much more sensitive approach than a lot of films take.
The film has a very claustrophobic feel, with the Litvak house being the main location; a small and confined home shrouded in darkness. The bulk of the film takes place in a handful of dark rooms, with Daivs often being the sole person on screen, but rather than feeling limited or boring it enhances the feeling of dread and fear that haunts the character and the audience. At first you’re not even sure what to expect, and the film relies on lingering shots and tense silences to build the tension, getting you to expect something to be lurking in the shadows behind Yakov to make you afraid.
When the scares come they start small, slowly ramping in their intensity and their disturbing nature, and a few of them will have your skin crawling as you suddenly realise what’s going on a moment before Yakov does. It could have been so easy for the film to feel silly or even failing to frighten thanks to the limitations of the set and cast, but if anything the movie shows how to utilise limitations to heighten the frights.
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The Vigil feels fresh and new, despite walking territory that has been explored before. However, thanks to telling its story through the lens of the Jewish community, embracing and celebrating that heritage, and presenting new spins on horror tropes, it becomes a film that not only entertains but fascinates throughout. It drew me in and made me want to learn more, and I was left sad that the film was only 90 minutes long because I wanted more time in that world. This is the directorial debut from Keith Thomas, and it’s a hell of a good start to a career that I’ll be eager to follow.