Movie Review: The Vigil turns Jewish folklore into claustrophobic horror
Much has been said about how The Vigil ventures into Jewish folklore to create a truly genuine Jewish horror story. The movie accomplishes this convincingly and it’s nothing short of impressive, especially when one considers how much of it happens almost exclusively in a small house setting.
The Vigil is a very focused horror movie. It takes place in a small Hasidic household that hides more secrets than one thought possible along with a Jewish entity known as the Mazzik (from the Hebrew word mazikeen which translates into “damager” or “destroyer”). A member of the Orthodox Jewish community has passed away and a man called Yakov Ronen (played by Dave Davis) is asked to become the body’s shomer from midnight to early morning, a religious responsibility that entails acting as the deceased’s watchman. He’s supposed to care for the dead man’s soul as it crosses over.
Complications arise as we learn Yakov has recently left the Hasidic community after a traumatizing experience. In the process, his faith has been broken, leaving him somewhat isolated while in the process of dealing with his separation from the life he’s always known.
Director Keith Thomas, who also wrote the film’s script, decided to cram as much as possible into the story to create a fully realized nightmare specific to the Jewish experience. The intention is to get at the terror behind trauma, memory, and the unknown.
It all speaks to Thomas’ ambitiousness and drive to create an authentic Jewish horror film by fully committing to the culture behind its subject matter. The film goes as far as shooting on location at Williamsburg and Borough Park, two places known for their Hasidic populations, to capture as much as possible from the community that hovers around the main character.
Despite these elements being put firmly in place for maximum narrative effect, what makes The Vigil intriguing is its decision to keep to an enclosed place as it makes Yakov relive his traumas just as the house’s cursed memories start spilling out.
The small, two-story house the story takes place in carries itself like an old and bruised place, overtaken by shadows that seem to only recede in dimly lit spots. Light sources themselves are tinged with opaque reds and greens, making everything seem somewhat shapeless. It makes for a location that comes across as ill-intentioned, persistent in boxing in its chosen victim with no escape in sight.
Thomas uses this to his advantage and amplifies it by keeping the camera close to Yakov. And yet, there’s always enough space left over to peer into the background and see if something unnatural moves closer to him. It allows for a heightened sense of tension and dread to build up and it results in some great scares.
Dave Davis makes the entire experience work with his measured and tortured performance as Yakov. His fear is palpable, but so is the pain he carries. The house and its entity put Yakov inside a black hole of fresh wounds and traumatic memories, all concerning his decision to leave the community he’s currently back in for the night, in spite of his best efforts.
Davis lets the viewer in on his character’s suffering and makes him infinitely relatable, even in the face of his character’s specific cultural traits. The house’s lack of big open spaces creates the eerie sensation one is also trapped inside it with Yakov, making us feel the same claustrophobic terror he’s engulfed in.
In this regard, The Vigil reminded me in parts of Scott Derickson’s Sinister. That movie’s demon also turned the house setting into a place where memories and hard life choices became things an evil entity could feed on. It exposed them and turned them into nightmares of their own. The Vigil showcases a similar approach to its horror, basically turning the house into a representation of the character’s fractured psyche.
In the middle of all this, the movie also finds a way to comment on antisemitism—from the Holocaust all the way to more modern forms of it—but not in a way that feels heavy-handed or forced. It’s presented as a constant that doesn’t need to rear its head on-screen to remind viewers of its existence, but it’s present enough to also play a role in creating its own sense of claustrophobia for whose who are victims of it.
The entity that attacks Yakov, both spiritually and mentally, is cleverly allowed to be seen in key moments so as to not allow the film to be solely consumed by its metaphors. The Vigil has a lot of things to say, but they don’t get in the way of making sure the movie also gives its audience a proper horror experience. The Jewish demon is memorable and is given the full weight of myth and history to have it embody a kind of evil that is ancient but still relevant.
The Vigil succeeds at making each story beat and horror sequence correspond organically with its Jewish folklore influences and elements. The demon, the house’s haunted memories, and the trauma are all specific to the Jewish experience, but they never close the door on audiences from other cultural backgrounds so they can relate to the horrors on display. It’s claustrophobic and it actively tries not to make anyone feel safe within its story, all attributes of a great horror movie.