Set in the Hasidic community of Boro Park Brooklyn, The Vigil is largely a one-man show. Fortunately, Dave Davis shines as weary and timid Yakov, who’s been asked to serve as a shomer and keep watch over a deceased body for one night on behalf of his Orthodox community. Directed and written by Keith Thomas, The Vigil is a claustrophobic film with plenty of unnerving frights. The malevolent entity is never quite fully seen, but the horror it unleashes upon Yakov forces him to confront his traumatic past and thus the collective trauma of his people.
Yakov agrees to serve as a shomer because he’s strapped for cash, telling friends at one point that he struggles to pay for his medication and his meals. Most of the film takes place in the home of Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen), a widow whose husband lies beneath a white sheet, while Yakov keeps watch a few feet away. There’s simply something unsettling about the presence of the corpse and how many times Yakov looks at it, as if it’s going to rise and endanger him at any moment.
As the night drags on, Yakov hears several odd noises, including heavy footsteps upstairs. It’s unclear if it’s just Mrs. Litvak or something more sinister. The film’s creep factor is enhanced by how claustrophobic the setting feels. Mrs. Litvak’s house has tight, dimly lit rooms with lamps that flicker on and off. Thomas stretched the film’s limited resources to their utmost effect, creating a setting steeped in dread.
Cohen’s performance as the widow is chilling, especially as her screen time increases as the movie progresses. She’s convinced that a demon haunts her home and there’s nothing Yakov can do to expel it. The demon, she explains, is drawn to trauma, and his pain makes him its latest victim.
Gradual flashbacks reveal what happened to Yakov’s little brother and how that tragedy haunts him. The tragedy serves as a larger representation of the historical violence that Jewish people have faced. The demon is drawn to that pain, and there’s nothing Yakov can do to shake it. He can’t flee the past.
The Vigil is a film that works best when it leans into psychological horror, be it Yakov’s tormented past or what he thinks he sees in the shadows. Several scares are quite effective, including one scene that shows the demon’s power when Yakov tries to escape the residence, despite Mrs. Litvak’s warning that it’s impossible to leave. The demon will force him to crawl back, she says. There’s another scene with a fingernail that’s nerve-jangling and an incident recorded on Yakov’s phone that’s hair-raising. The film’s few jump scares are much less effective and at times weigh down an otherwise well-crafted film.
It can’t be understated how much Davis’ performance carries the film. He plays a reluctant and fatigued sentinel quite well, trying to process his past while moving forward in the present. Yakov’s struggles with faith also buoy the film and make him a layered character. His emotional torment and personal struggles are believable.
The Vigil is a creepy film that uses a demon to address the protagonist’s traumatic past and the broader, deeper trauma of the Jewish people. The film builds to a believable ending that shows Yakov still grappling with both his past and his faith. This isn’t a movie where the demon is suddenly exorcised by faith leaders and the sun rises the next morning. Yakov’s pain is real, and he’ll carry it with him throughout his life.
The Vigil releases on VOD platforms and in select theaters on February 26.
Follow HorrOrigins Social Media Pages