Yakov (Dave Davis), a down-on-his-luck former member of New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, agrees to a job keeping watch over a deceased man the night before his burial. However, in the dead of night he’s faced with a malevolent entity that forces him to revisit repressed memories and long-buried pain to survive.
The woes that have beset the Jewish people – especially experiences from the Second World War – have made for emotional and compelling films over the years. Whether in Holocaust dramas like Schindler’s List or dark comedies like JoJo Rabbit, Jewish stories onscreen have often been defined by horror without being actual horror films. With debuting writer-director Keith Thomas’ electrifying The Vigil, that’s no longer the case.
Produced by Blumhouse Productions (the minds behind Insidious and Paranormal Activity, to name a few), The Vigil ropes you in with something different to the usual story of demonic possession in a white American family. Exploring elements of ancient Jewish culture in a modern New York setting gives Thomas many options for slow-burn scares.
One sequence that works well is when Yakov starts his vigil over the deceased recluse, Mr Litvak. As he listens to music and texts a potential love interest, his phone screen is projected. This breaks our focus on watching the dead body – in plain sight across the room – and reminds us that we’re still in the modern world. But Thomas uses this to make scenes more tense; because our ability to watch out for what’s happening in the background is impaired, every shadowy move and distant thud heightens the atmosphere.
This is coupled with excellent set design that makes the ordinary suburban home a creepy monument to the demon. Watch out for the background details; they mark The Vigil as more sophisticated than your average haunting.
Thomas’ script also shows signs of a well-versed horror writer. Claustrophobic films can be hard to pull off. However, Thomas sets the scene well early on and builds up to his scares gradually, meaning we never tire of Yakov’s vigil. Even when we do eventually go outside, towards the middle and at the end of the movie, it’s with a twist of lingering horror at having left the dark, haunted house.
Thomas also does well to create a narrative that draws on the life and culture of the Jewish people while also exploring common human experiences. It lacks in big frights as the film builds towards a climax, but The Vigil, despite its tale of cultural difference, is an ode to how we can all face what haunts us.
Dave Davis delivers an impactful performance as Yakov. Initially a timid and repressed figure, the pain built into Yakov’s past is writ large once a demon begins to haunt him. We feel for Yakov’s plight, not just because he is being tortured but because this torture is of his own making. Davis does a good job at building up the character’s defence then tearing it down, giving his performance more weight than you’d find in typical horror movie fare.
The film’s structure as a near one-actor show means that acting performances elsewhere are unmemorable, Lynn Cohen’s creepy Mrs. Litvak, the wife of the man being held vigil over aside.
Blumhouse Productions have another hit on their hands with The Vigil. The claustrophobic horror draws you in with a story of a culture unfamiliar to many; but what we watch, as Yakov comes to terms with traumas he’s repressed, is a very common human experience. We all carry around pain we’d rather not face, and so The Vigil has a surprisingly hard-hitting impact regardless of whether you’re a fan of a fright or not.
The Vigil brings a fresh take to the haunted house story. Steeped in Hasidic folklore and the pain of the past, the film is tight and tense with some great acting performances. 7/10.