By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig and Lynn Cohen
Written and directed by Keith Thomas
One of horror-film history’s first screen monsters may have been the Golem, in Paul Wegener’s 1920 film subtitled HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD, but further examples of Jewish spiritualism and mythology employed by scare cinema have been few and far between. When they have emerged, as in 2009’s THE UNBORN and 2012’s POSSESSION, they have tended to be used as a touch of flavor in an otherwise familiar stew, which means that Keith Thomas’ THE VIGIL stands out as a chiller that is truly about the subject. There are a number of familiar haunted-home tropes here, to be sure, yet the story remains rooted in its lead character and his own questions of Jewish identity.
When we first meet Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), he’s attending a meeting with others who have recently parted ways with the Orthodox community in Brooklyn, New York and are now experiencing outside society, its pleasures and frustrations for the first time. Yakov is just now learning the intricacies of that great 21st-century invention, the smartphone; so far, he’s only gotten the hang of the flashlight, which will come in handy when he has to explore the sources of strange noises coming from the dark house where he’ll be spending the rest of the night. He winds up there after Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), a Hasidic presence from the past that the group would prefer to leave behind, shows up after the meeting, imploring Yakov to sit as a shomer, watching over the body of a recently deceased man until morning. Yakov is understandably reluctant, but Shulem knows he needs the money, and has it. And by the night’s end, Yakov will certainly have earned it.
An opening title screen explains that a shomer is usually a family member or friend of the deceased but can also be a stranger when necessary, who both comforts the dead person’s soul and protects it from any evil spirits that might be nearby. With that, Thomas sets up expectations that the latter is going to be necessary, and further sets the stage with a visual homage to THE EXORCIST–carrying the same sense of foreboding–as Shulem leads Yakov up to and into the deceased’s Borough Park home. Before their arrival, a dialogue between the two (part English and part Yiddish, as it is throughout the movie) lets us get to know Yakov and his conflicted faith, and there are hints of a traumatic past incident that helped compel him to step away from his past life. It turns out that the dead man he’ll be looking after once went through his own ordeal: He’s Ruben Litvak, a Holocaust survivor described by Shulem as “a good man, a little weird” who eventually became a recluse. He now lies under a sheet in the front room…and it isn’t long after Yakov is left alone with his body that he thinks he may have seen the sheet…moving?
That’s one of a number of standard scary sights and sounds seen and heard throughout THE VIGIL, from a phone call that turns creepy to Yakov pulling something hairy and gross out of his mouth, and the edgy strings of Michael Yezerski’s ominous, sometimes assaultive score. Yet the movie works because it fully invests us with Yakov, and the specific elements of Judaism aren’t utilized as a simple gimmick, but fully infuse the narrative. As Yakov learns more about Mr. Litvak’s history, his own becomes clearer and it becomes evident that a lurking presence is determined to destroy him, Thomas creates a parable about coming to terms with one’s past. The demon of this scenario is the mazzik, “damned to look backwards,” a metaphor for the way we can’t help but dwell on what’s behind us and how the inability to look away can ruin us, and it’s a strong and effective one.
In terms of the physical production, Thomas makes a lot out of a little, building claustrophobic suspense in the house setting the film only briefly leaves, and introducing new spaces within it where fresh fear awaits. (There’s a particularly spooky scene in which Yakov discovers old video of Mr. Litvak that proves to be interactive.) Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, who conjured the deeply threatening black-and-white shadows in THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, does the same here in color, with teases of horror hiding just outside our and Yakov’s lines of sight. Thomas builds tension with long takes as Yakov’s situation becomes desperate and inescapable, with Davis (whose previous genre lead was…er, OZARK SHARKS) bringing shading, sympathy and emotional complexity to his tormented protagonist. With this compelling lead and a full embrace of its subject, THE VIGIL succeeds as both a scary movie and a drama of personal struggle.