THE VIGIL (2021)
Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Lynn Cohen, Fred Melamed, Ronald Cohen, Nati Rabinowitz, Moshe Lobel
Directed by Keith Thomas
Writer-director Keith Thomas makes his debut with the scary as hell horror film “The Vigil.” Dave Davis (“Bomb City”) plays Yakov, a young apostate trying to get used to life on the outside after leaving the Orthodox Jewish Community. He’s approached by his former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) and asked to perform shemira, a ritual where someone becomes the guardian or “shomer” of a deceased person’s body from the time of death until burial. Low on funds, Yakov agrees, and it doesn’t take long for things to go bump in the night.
Jewish traditions call for a burial to happen usually within 24 hours after death. The sooner the better. Yakov gains to make $400 in five hours by just standing vigil over the body of Holocaust survivor Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen) until the mortuary men show up first thing in the morning. The custom is a sign of respect for the dead whose souls should be kept company before interment. According to the rabbi, the last shomer bailed because “He was afraid” which explains why Shulem is so desperate to have Yakov take the job — also it’s a way for the rabbi to try and reconnect with his former disciple.
Yakov takes the gig with just his cell phone to keep him company — electrical devices are a big shemira no-no, but these are desperate times — which he uses to text Sara (Malky Goldman) whom he just met at a support group for other Hasidic apostates. Of course, Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) will be around but her age, the time of night, and the fact that she suffers from Alzheimer’s won’t make for good company. She is good, however, for providing a few scares by popping out of the shadows, startling Yakov, and asking “Do you want some tea?”
In most Jewish-based horror films the menace turns out to be a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit that possesses someone like a demon, as in “The Exorcist.” For a frame of reference check out the 2012 film “The Possession” starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a father trying to save his bedeviled daughter. Thomas delves into Talmudic lore to deliver his frights in the form of a Mazzik, a low-level demon who is known to hang around women whose husbands die. It doesn’t matter where on the supernatural scale this entity falls, in “The Vigil” it delivers legitimate frights.
Shot entirely at night, DP Zach Kuperstein does a terrific job of creating a spooky environment by using ambient light to produce a soft glow to each scene without giving away what may be lurking in the dark. Lamps and streetlights serve as beacons offering refuge to Yakov and anyone else traversing the Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn. Candles and cell phone lights also come in handy.
The score by composer Michael Yezerski is one of the film’s assets as it ranges from eerie disembodied voices to brutal orchestral stabs reminiscent of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music in “Sicario,” to industrial dance beats that would feel at home on Number’s dance floor. Nitzer Ebb and Ministry come to mind although Thomas name drops Skinny Puppy in the production notes, “Dig It” would fit in nicely on the soundtrack.
Dave Davis is convincing as Yakov who seems to be frightened by women and possibly his own shadow. There’s a traumatic event in his past to blame and so as we watch him battle literal demons it’s also clear that he is in a war with his own inner demons. A transformation is at play which could result in a new mindset. Who’s in development at Shudder? This would make a great series in the tone of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” as Yakov becomes a professional shomer encountering various forms of evil in each episode.
A small role, but it’s great to see Menashe Lustig (star of 2017’s semi-autobiographical “Menashe”) as the rabbi and we are treated to one of the final performances by wonderful actress Lynn Cohen (“Sex and the City,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) who passed away last year.
The last horror film that really scared me was 2020’s “The Dark and the Wicked” which just dropped on Shudder. “The Vigil” has a few jump scares but the majority of the film offers genuine frights that will send chills down your spine.
Opens Friday in Select Theaters, on Digital Platforms and VOD