In the upcoming indie chiller “The Vigil” a troubled young man encounters a malevolent spirit while watching over the body of deceased man from his Jewish community in Brooklyn. It’s a religious ritual where the person watching (called a shomer if male, a shomeret if female) both protects and comforts the deceased’s soul until time for burial. First time director Keith Thomas uses this Jewish practice as a catalyst in his small-scale supernatural horror film about the psychological ravages of oppressive guilt.
“The Vigil” premiered way back at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and has since released in a handful of markets. Now it has finally found its way to the States thanks to IFC Films. The troubled young man is Yakov (Dave Davis) who we first meet at a support group for struggling Jewish twenty-somethings who have left their Orthodox roots. He shares with the group his bad news of losing a job opportunity and of how his financial woes “having to choose between medication and meals“.
As Yakov leaves the meeting he’s greeted by his former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) who’s in a pickle. He needs Yakov to fill in as a shomer for the recently deceased Mr. Litvak, a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family in the concentration camps. After the war Mr. Litvak started a new family but the scars from his last drove him to become a recluse, estranged from his children and grandchildren. For the last several years he had stayed shut-up inside his home with his frail dementia-addled wife. The shomer who was there left in a panic. Reb Shulem needs Yakov to cover the final five hours until morning when Mr. Litvak is set to be buried.
Cash-strapped and a bit desperate, Yakov works his payment up to $400 and heads to the Litvak home. Most of the film takes place in this shadowy townhouse which Thomas uses to great effect. Within moments of settling in, Yakov begins hearing noises upstairs where Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) is sleeping. The bumps, creaks and flickering lights are nothing compared to the horrifying visions that follow and intensify as the night goes on. Meanwhile Mr. Litvak’s body ominously lays in the living room covered in a sheet and bathed in an eerie off-white glow.
Some of the film’s biggest strengths lies in Thomas’ ability to manage his unsettling tone while developing and sustaining a spooky atmosphere despite the constrictions of such a small setting. There is a time or two where he gives in and goes for some unneeded jump scares. They’re made worse by an uneven sound design that had me constantly adjusting the volume on my television. It’s as if in those few moments Thomas lost faith in his vision and went the cheap route. But thankfully those moments are few and the film’s deeper meaning quickly comes to the surface.
Over the course of the film we learn more about what drove Yakov to leave his Orthodox roots – a particular tragedy that has not only left him disillusioned but also burdened by guilt. The evil spirit in the house hones in on that weakness turning “The Vigil” into an unexpectedly compelling supernatural and psychological blend. And it’s all realized through a smart visual technique that centers on building its foreboding mood rather than leaning on blood-soaked special effects. So we end up with a crafty theme-conscious horror film with an interesting cultural perspective and mostly good instincts when it comes keeping its audience squirming. “The Vigil” premieres February 26th.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS