The Vigil (Movie Review)

From the studio that brought you 2014’s The Babadook and 2020’s Relic comes a new Supernatural Horror experience entitled The Vigil, and it arrives in select theatres, as well as to Digital and VOD, beginning Friday, February 26, 2021 thanks to IFC Midnight and Blumhouse Productions.

The Vigil still

A stupendous feature debut for Writer-Director Keith Thomas (Arkane short 2017), The Vigil is set amongst the Hasidic Jewish population of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Here, the community is dedicated to their rituals, especially the idea of keeping watch over the dead. When someone dies, their body is watched round the clock by a shomer, or watchman, who recites psalms for comfort and to protect the deceased’s soul from evil. Though the shomer is typically a family member or friend, there are paid shomers when the need arises.

Suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder and fighting to acclimate to a life outside of the insular Hasidic community, Yakov (Dave Davis: The Walking Dead series, True Detective series) finds himself in dire need of funds to survive. Desperate to draw him back into the fold, his former rabbi, Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig: Menashe 2017, Soon by You series), offers him an opportunity to make $400 for five hours of work. It’s simple, really: Rubin Litvak (Ronald Cohen: Once We Were Strangers 1997, Benji The Dove 2018), a Holocaust survivor, has recently passed and his wife (Lynn Cohen: Munich 2005, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 2013) suffers from Alzheimer’s, so she needs a shomer to attend to her husband.

The Litvak home is dimly lit, full of shadows, and Mrs. Litvak is not particularly welcoming, but Yakov is eventually able to settle in and take a seat in the parlor beside the body. Not long afterward, however, he realizes that something is very wrong. As he’s presented with the mounting evidence of a sinister presence—from loud noises and flashing lights to exploding lightbulbs and technological interference—Yakov has to decide if he can last the night.

Steeped in ancient Jewish lore and demonology, The Vigil takes an approach to its Supernatural Horror that is, in some senses, similar to 2016’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe. With a steady pace that delivers its very first bits of eeriness before the 20-minute mark, this is a tale that unfolds throughout the length of a single evening. Writer-Director Thomas builds tension with the masterful skill of recent offerings like 2019’s The Hole in the Ground, but, unlike the aforementioned flick, The Vigil manages to continue inducing anxiety until its conclusion.

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It likely goes without saying that Thomas’ religious spin evokes thoughts of its forebears, such as the 1973 classic The Exorcist, but this is not another Catholic nightmare. Instead, The Vigil creates its own unique path by including a spine-tingling score from Michael Yezerski (Wolf Creek series, The Tax Collector 2020), one that delivers a devious sucker punch of tension to the onscreen action. Add to this some wonderfully moody, dark-toned cinematography from Zach Kuperstein (The Eyes of My Mother 2016, Jonathan 2018), whose use of muted colors keeps the mood appropriately somber a this is, after all, intended to feel funereal.

At 90 minutes, the multilingual film—which incorporates English and Yiddish, as well as Italian and Hebrew text, and provides subtitles as needed—is succinct and never lags. Much in thanks to the phenomenally chilling performances of Davis and Cohen, The Vigil is at both times creepy and heartbreaking, a story that revolves around a community, and a man, who have experienced the appallingly inhumanity of antisemitism. There are moments meant to inspire great empathy, and moments that are intended to make you jump. When combined, this careful manipulation of an audiences’ emotions creates an intriguing experience.

Again, much of that is thanks to Davis and Cohen. In the lead role of Yakov, Davis is tasked with, not only playing the ‘hero,’ if you will, but also allowing himself to be tragically vulnerable. In this, the talented actor gives a magnificent performance as he relays lingering trauma with a heartbreaking efficacy; emotional pain is not something simple to convey, but Davis nails it. Likewise, his co-star Cohen is stupendous. A spooky little lady who seems to silently skulk about the house, she eventually delivers her own moving speech before disappearing back into the shadows. Perfectly timed and elegantly executed, Cohen’s moments are exceptional.

Which is not to overlook Lustig’s Reb Shulem, a ‘helicopter rabbi’ who, although seemingly well-intentioned, is decidedly overbearing. Desperate to inspire Davis’ Yakov to return to his close-knit community, Lustig finds a perfect balance in portraying a leader who is never malicious even if he’s terrible at taking ‘no’ for an answer. And Malky Goldman (High Maintenance series, Unorthodox series) also turns in a solid performance as Yakov’s love interest, Sarah.

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The film is not, however, without its flaws. Thomas is careful to avoid any obvious scares, generally trading those moments for the chance to increase the tension to suffocating levels. Considering that in today’s world of Horror it’s rare that a film is legitimately frightening, an end goal of offering an unnerving and freaky experience is nothing to balk at. The Vigil is this: something unsettling enough to make us nervous later in the night when turning a dark corner. But without offering any spoilers, its culminating scenes fail to be truly terrifying and therein lies the crux of The Vigil: it builds relentless anxiety to reach a conclusion that feels slightly underwhelming.

Of course, when all is said and done, Keith Thomas is a name that the Horror obsessed need remember. His game of cat and mouse brilliantly uses both audio and visual spooks to take its moviegoers on a ride. With ample doses of darkness and shadow to torment moviegoers’ nerves, The Vigil is an excellent offering that is likely to scare anyone new to the supernatural, while still keeping us old-school fans entertained. For this, Cryptic Rock gives The Vigil 4 of 5 stars.

IFC Midnight

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