A troubled Jewish man endures a five-hour shift of satanic panic when he agrees to watch over the corpse of a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. Tormented by a sadistic entity, the kindly Yakov must find a way to unhook its delusory claws from his delicate psyche before it consumes his mind, body and soul.
Compact and classy, the prime agenda of The Vigil is to scare the living shit out of you, but it’s also a beautifully nuanced character piece with emotional bite and a crisp intellectual texture.
Director Keth Thomas squeezes the most out of his resources with a keen eye for the mechanics of impending doom and a deft touch in low key histrionics that refines the scares and preserves the integrity of his picture.
His background in both clinical research and rabbinical school allow him to flesh out his characters with poise and authority. He directs the impressive cast with an equal grace that points to a rare talent for channelling personal experience and an overarching credo of sensitivity.
Dave Davis is brilliant as Yakov, a complex and fragile human being with a catalogue of mental health issues. Thomas chooses to integrate these frailties into the theological minefield of his narrative rather than milk them for lazy shock value. Orchestrators of less insightful genre fare such as the base Daniel Isn’t Real should take note of how it can be done with respect and resonance.
Even more impressive is Lynn Cohen’s grieving widow Mrs Litvak, who is Yakov’s only companion during his pant shitting odyssey of psychological pummeling. A woman who oozes longtime suffering and a lifetime of wasted prayers, riddled with regret and Alzheimers. This performance could have landed in an awkward quagmire somewhere between Tangina the diminutive “house cleaner” from Poltergeist and Nana from The Visit. However, her moving turn serves as the film’s lynchpin and holds comparison with Robyn Nevin’s masterful work in the similarly erudite Relic. Here, once again, Thomas handles the heartbreak of dementia with understanding and a dignified pathos.
The Vigil effortlessly transcends its budgetary limitations with super-smart uses of external media that animates the narrative and turbo boosts the terror. The parasitic demon seems adept on all platforms as it harnesses technology old and new to mind rape Yakov. Highlights include a home movie exposition sequence that will test the strength of your anal retention muscles and a video call shock that will carbon freeze your marrow.
On a deeper level, the use of social media expands upon the theme of present-day pressures and provides a stark counterpoint to the traditional orthodox Jewish trappings. Deeper still, it works as a visual metaphor for memory both as a mental torture box, festooned with the spikes of guilt and culpability, and as an easily manipulated conduit for self-castigation.
The idea that demons represent the gatekeepers of our own moral delinquency is not a new one. However, in the context of Yakov’s mental illness, it is particularly cruel to give this one the keys to his personal hurt locker. It is a mean streak in the movie that sharpens its edges by engendering character empathy.
So often relegated to the role of a punch line “we suffer two great inheritances of the Jewish people: irritable bowel syndrome and guilt,” Keith Thomas seems more aligned with Jewish guilt as a powerful tool of self fortification. The demon Yakov encounters is a Mazzik, a creature comparable in essence to the sinners in the fourth section of Dante’s Inferno. Just as it is unable to look forward due to its reversed face, Yakov becomes resigned to confronting it head-on, considering it initially as a manifestation of his own making, then ultimately as a cheat code for redemption.
Originally necessitated by hungry rats the Shemira ritual of guarding the dead was retained, in part, to provide comfort for grieving relatives. Midrashic lore suggests that the human soul lingers in the vicinity of its mortal vessel for a number of days. This mirrors Yakov’s inner conflict perfectly as his own spirituality is in transitional limbo. He too is confused and displaced as he strives for a more normal life outside the steely grip of strict sectarian Judaism. It’s exactly this kind of contextual penetration that elevates The Vigil above other more exploitative possession pictures.
The bombastic sound design somewhat belies the films tender approach to both humanism and moviemaking. That being said, the more heavy-handed aspects of the picture help to purify its horror pedigree and as a clever consequence broaden its appeal.
Shot through with nimble touches and finespun triggers, Thomas has succeeded in creating a fascinating film that shines both as a relentless fright-fest and a rare glimpse into an ecclesiastical grotto uncharted by modern horror.
Theological Horror | USA, 2019 | 89 m | 15 – strong and often sustained threat throughout| Cinema release 31st July 2020 in the UK and Ireland | Dir. Keith Thomas| With. Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman