Honesty in horror is tricky. It's a genre premised on misdirection and subterfuge, and horror films will often point in one direction only to sneak up from an entirely different direction. To balance that act with a truthful core and compelling narrative is rare and special, but that is what The Vigil does. The film, available on-demand starting this Friday and the debute feature from director Keith Thomas, draws viewers into a well-constructed, honest house of horrors.
Taking place over one night in Brooklyn's Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood, The Vigil follows a struggling Yakov, played by a delicate yet dedicated Dave Davis. Yakov accepts a job to be an overnight shomer to watch over the body of a deceased man. He has never met the man, but he soon discovers more sinister forces threatening to consume him unless he can make peace with his past.
To be a shomer is to take part in the religious ritual of being present from the time of death until the burial. Yakov is disconnected from his faith, having left the community after a traumatic anti-Semitic attack. He insists he is only doing this for the money and even bargains up the price with his former rabbi, Reb Shulem, who begrudgingly agrees. The ever-charming Menashe Lustig plays the rabbi.
Lustig was in the fantastic 2017 film Menashe and, despite playing only a brief part here, is a delight to see on-screen once again. He infuses the early scenes with a sense of humor and sentimentality, wanting to be there for Yakov while also trying to bring him back from his solitude.
That's where the film spends its time, with Yakov alone and grappling with his isolation, the trauma from his attack still weighing on him. When the world around him begins to tip into chaos, he initially internalizes the horror, believing it's made-up in his head.
In reality, the horror is very real, drawing from Jewish Demonology. I won't spoil the evil forces—it's best to discover them in the film—but the film uses supernatural horror, body horror, and psychological horror as it steadily ratchets up the tension. That tension is only occasionally undercut with a few cheap scares.
The Vigil's score is notable, featuring an unusual mix of chanting, which becomes unsettling and strangely melodic. It begins quietly, with Yakov sitting by himself listening to music, but a rumbling persists throughout the house.
Visually, the film is frequently dark. A phone's flashlight is often a primary light source. Even for the things you can't fully see, you make out enough to put you on edge. Your mind fills in the rest.
The looming Lynn Cohen is fantastic as Mrs. Litvak, the deceased man's widow. The part could have consumed a lesser actor, reducing them to being a vehicle for exposition and backstory, but Cohen delivers her lines with gravitas. When she speaks about memories—and one line in particular, when she says "the biting never stops"—it resonates.
References to the reverberations left by the Holocaust instill the film with tragedy, and mixed in with that tragedy is the lingering question of how to recover after an immense loss. The answers offered by a fittingly melancholic conclusion indicate that many times you can't. Sometimes, the horrors of the past are just over your shoulder.
You can stream The Vigil on VOD starting Friday, February 26.