Movies: The Vigil (2019)

After seeing the 2022 reboot of Firestarter not too long ago, I remembered that it was only the second feature film from director Keith Thomas, and I also remembered that Thomas’s feature film debut, The Vigil, caused a slight buzz when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2019. I was curious to see what Keith Thomas did with his own material, rather than having to adapt someone else’s, so I fired up Hulu and gave The Vigil a watch.

Though the premise is not entirely original—being a sort of haunted house or demon-type movie—it does have a unique angle, in that its story is set within the Orthodox Jewish community, and relies on that mythology for its scares. It’s nicely shot, and very atmospheric, with some effectively creepy scenes and images. It’s a bit slow-moving, is almost entirely set in one house, and relies a bit too much on jump scares, but overall it’s a pretty solid little horror movie in the lower-budget, vaguely arty, Blumhouse sort of ilk.

Dave Davis stars as Yakov Ronen, a young man in Brooklyn who has grown up in New York City’s Orthodox Jewish community. After a tragedy which we don’t get the details of until later, we learn that Yakov has recently left this community; he still retains his faith, presumably, and still maintains contact with his family members and friends, but he has apparently decided that the life is no longer for him. At the beginning, we see him at a sort of support group for others who are making the transition out of orthodoxy, and it’s clear that Yakov is struggling. His former sheltered existence means that he doesn’t know how to write a résumé and interview for a job, and doesn’t know how to talk to women; hell, it appears that he’s only recently learned to use a smartphone. Because of these difficulties, he’s also having money problems, unsurprisingly.

On his way out of the meeting, he runs into a friend (relative?) of his named Reb Shulem, who is still a member of the community. He knows that Yakov is hurting for cash, so he has a proposition for him: a local man named Rubin Litvak, a Holocaust survivor, has died, and someone needs to be a shomer, which is a person who sits in vigil over the body until the mortuary attendants come to pick it up. In the Orthodox Jewish community, some text at the beginning of the movie helpfully explains, most of the time the shomer would be a family member, but if for some reason a family member was not available, then it was perfectly common for a paid shomer to do the job.

This is essentially what Reb Shulem wants Yakov to do; he says he’ll pay him $400 to sit at the Litvak house and watch over the corpse until dawn, a span of about five hours. The first shomer he hired, he says, took off because he was afraid, though he didn’t say why. Reb Shulem also notes that Mr. Litvak does have a wife in the house, but she has dementia and can’t really be expected to sit the vigil herself.

Yakov is reluctant, but he has acted as a shomer before, and he really needs the money, so it doesn’t take too much coaxing to talk him into it. Reb Shulem then tries to convince Yakov to come to morning prayers with him the following day, low-key trying to get him back into the fold, but Yakov isn’t having that. Reb Shulem at least respects Yakov’s choice, though.

So the rest of the movie takes place inside the Latvik’s spooky old house, where the body of Rubin Latvik lies under a white sheet in the front parlor. As the hours creep by, scary shenanigans begin to ramp up: Yakov hears weird noises coming from upstairs, he thinks he sees a shadowy figure in the dining room that mysteriously disappears when he shines a flashlight on it, and the joints in his hands begin cracking oddly. Eventually, the phenomena escalates into full-on hallucinations, including a really gross one involving a toenail, and an intensely eerie one concerning a video he receives on his phone.

The movie introduces a bit of ambiguity into the circumstances by having Yakov calling his doctor at one point, talking about his medication and stating that he doesn’t think he has to go back to the hospital, so for a while the audience isn’t sure whether the things he’s seeing in the house are real or just a product of his past trauma (which is shown briefly through flashbacks and dream sequences, and had to do with the horrific death of family member).

The upshot of all this, though, is that the dead man, Rubin Latvik, was plagued throughout his life by a demon of Jewish folklore known as a Mazzik, which according to exposition by Mrs. Latvik, attaches itself to those in great psychological pain. Now that Rubin is dead, the demon is apparently seeking a new host, and since Yakov has a trauma in his recent past, the Mazzik is certainly going to latch onto him, and will dog him throughout his life unless he does something to rid himself of it. The look of the demon, when it appears, is actually pretty fantastic too, and wonderfully unsettling.

As I mentioned, The Vigil isn’t breaking any new ground in the supernatural horror genre, but it’s refreshing to see a demon-possession style film that isn’t based around Catholicism for a change. There really aren’t all that many horror films dealing with Orthodox Jewish folklore, so it was cool to see a bit of a different spin on the same old formula. The movie isn’t reinventing the wheel by any means, and it does succumb to a few tired horror tropes, but overall, it was a pretty decent watch with some genuinely effective scares and a nice atmosphere of dread throughout.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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