Keith Thomas’ debut feature The Vigil opens with an epigraph that explains the film’s title. For thousands of years, religious Jews have practiced this eponymous ritual, where a shomer—or watchman—looks after a dead body. The shomer recites psalms to comfort the deceased’s soul and protect it from evil. It’s a beautiful tradition, but also the perfect premise for a horror movie. Because what if that soul is somehow corrupted? What if there are other forces at play that might prevent the peaceful transition from life to death?
The Vigil is a slick, atmospheric movie that sucks us right in. We open on Yakov (Dave Davis), a young man transitioning from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing to a secular life. He attends a support group with others who’ve left the Orthodox faith, and he’s learning to navigate this new reality. But he’s struggling, especially financially.
So it’s rather convenient when his former rabbi shows up with an offer Yakov can’t refuse. For $500, he has to act as shomer for a recently deceased man named Mr. Litvak. Yakov reluctantly agrees, and walks with this former rabbi to the Litvak residence in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Mrs. Litvak, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, greets the men and immediately tells Yakov to leave. Not exactly a comforting welcome, but Yakov stays on. It’s only five hours until the mortuary men will arrive to take Mr. Litvak’s body away. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot of things, it turns out. We quickly learn that Yakov isn’t the most reliable of narrators. After a traumatic event pushed him from religion, he suffered a breakdown that placed him in a hospital. He now suffers from PTSD; intrusive thoughts disrupt what should be a calm experience in a quiet house. But maybe those shadows on the wall aren’t delusions after all. It seems something attached itself to Mr. Litvak long ago. Something hungry for a new host. Yakov is a perfect vessel for such a demon, known in the Jewish folklore as a mazzikin. He’s full of pain and doubt—delicious morsels for an evil entity.
The Vigil feels familiar in a lot of ways. But the loss-of-faith trope is typically reserved for Christian fare, i.e. The Exorcist or the recent Saint Maud. The Orthodox Jewish elements give this one a refreshing edge. A vigil is the perfect setting for this kind of tale. The film reckons with both antisemitism and modern secular Judaism in fascinating ways.
I do wish The Vigil had a little more originality outside of its Jewish roots. It leans hard on jump-scare sound effects and eerie technology interferences, to its own detriment. And the finale is also little derivative of past religious horror, at least character-wise. Yakov is such a harrowing central figure—and Dave Davis is an excellent actor—that I wanted to see more from him. The film is smartly set during a single night, but needed a bit more to keep its protagonist from coming off as sparse as he does.
That said, The Vigil makes for an invigorating watch. It’s just 90 minutes, and wastes none of that time. Writer and director Keith Thomas knows how to keep us invested, and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein makes excellent use of the dark setting. Not since The Autopsy of Jane Doe has a corpse been so frightening, and the setting around said corpse so visually mysterious. I’m excited to see what these talents do next.
The Vigil releases in select theaters, on Digital Platforms, and on VOD on February 26.