Steeped in ancient Jewish lore and demonology, THE VIGIL is a supernatural horror film set over the course of a single evening in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood. Low on funds and having recently left his insular religious community, Yakov reluctantly accepts an offer from his former rabbi and confidante to take on the responsibility of an overnight “shomer,” fulfilling the Jewish practice of watching over the body of a deceased community member. Shortly after arriving at the recently departed’s dilapidated house to sit the vigil, Yakov begins to realize that something is very, very wrong.
With a very similar tone as Relic, down to the infamous front door frame, The Vigil plays upon tradition, lore, and trauma. The trappings of religion are always complex. As a former Catholic, I can attest to the creepiness of essentially being told that it was a blessing to consume the metaphorical body parts of the son of God. I had to kneel at the feet of a crucified Jesus… at an altar. The more I say I say it out loud the weirder and more awful these rituals sound to my 40-year-old self. In The Vigil, Vakov is hired to sit with the body of a deceased member of the Jewish community he has just left. Already haunted by the death of someone close to him, he is consumed by hideous visions and physical manifestations of terror.
Mrs. Litvak, played by the late great Lynn Cohen, is a beautiful go-between for lore and reality. Never is the Alzheimer’s diagnosis exploited, just the mere mention is enough to ignite theories in the viewer’s mind. Cohen is simply a joy to watch. She strikes a phenomenal balance between darling and intense. Dave Davis as Yakov is outstanding. His grief anchors you in place. His vulnerability is absolutely key to this screenplay working as well as it does. His emotional transformation is astounding.
The look of the film is dark. The concept of juxtaposing old-world tradition against the modern is clever. The framing is smart. Wide panning angles force your eyes to scan the room constantly. The audio of The Vigil is a character into itself. Scraping, pounding, creaking are only the beginning of the trail of fear. 30 minutes in and the viewer is in full panic mode alongside Yakov. The idea that victims of deep trauma are the target of this entity is unbelievably cruel. The number of successful jump scares in The Vigil is unreal. Whether driven by guilt or an actual demon, this film will get under your skin. It’s a chilling experience. You’ll hopefully feel as free in the final moments as Yakov does. Writer/director Keith Thomas genuinely manages to provide equal parts fright and catharsis. It’s quite literally breathtaking.
AN IFC MIDNIGHT RELEASE | UNITED STATES | FEB 26TH, 2021 | 90 MINS | NR