Religious rituals have long inspired horror films. From genre classics such as The Exorcist and The Omen right up to forthcoming British sizzler Saint Maud, the links between organised religion, a belief in the supernatural and a damn good scare are clear. Often, stories derived from Christianity inform horror. With The Vigil, debut writer-director Keith Thomas offers a new perspective by delving into an esoteric practice from the Jewish faith.
In Brooklyn, unemployed Yacov (Dave Davis from Bomb City and The Walking Dead) is offered $400 to act as a shomer for the night, a job which requires him to guard the dead body of Holocaust survivor Rubin Litvak until dawn. With trepidation, Yacov dutifully enters Litvak’s home in the Hasidic Jewish Boro Park neighbourhood. He is disconcerted by Litvak’s widow, played with a chilling blend of dementia and foresight by Lynn Cohen (Munich, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) but decides to settle in for the night against his better judgement.
Over the course of the night, Yacov’s mental stability and faith are tested by a series of visions. An early scene had already suggested Yacov renounced strict adherence to his faith and during the vigil recurring memories of a horrible incident of racially-motivated assault torment him and suggests why he feels inclined towards secular life. Litvak’s own horrifying memories of the Holocaust repeat and blur into Yacov’s, and both the viewer and Yacov have to constantly question what is seen and heard. Determining what is real or imagined is often an audience challenge in horror and Thomas is adroit at exploiting our fears.
Before he turned filmmaker, Thomas studied at Rabbi school, and researched the Boro Park community thoroughly before shooting there, going far to allow the action to feel and look authentic even when it’s at its most startling. The ugly screeching of Australian composer Michael Yezerski’s anxiety-inducing industrial score, meanwhile, is suitably nightmarish and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein’s artfully lit scenes keep us guessing what will be next to emerge from the shadows.
Ultimately though, it’s a shame that Yacov himself is not a hugely interesting protagonist, even if we do recoil at what’s happening to him. Overall, The Vigil is a modest entry into the horror canon, chiefly of interest because of its fresh perspective, while providing an auspicious start to Thomas’s feature career.
- Director: Keith Thomas
- Starring: Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Lynn Cohen
- Release date: July 31