The battle between God and the Devil is a tale as old as time. Priests battle the agents of evil and must try to confront their own faith. This is, of course, illustrated throughout the horror genre in films such as The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. Importantly, though, these stories are focused on the Catholic version of Heaven and Hell, complete with crucifixes and Hail Marys. But what about other religions? What does religious horror look like outside of the Christian faith? Writer/director Keith Thomas provides at least one answer to that question with his debut The Vigil, which is a classic demonic possession tale told through a Jewish lens.
Yakov (Dave Davis) has recently left the Hasidic Jew community after experiencing a trauma that dismantled his faith. He’s struggling to adapt to the outside world—particularly with money—and in the midst of this struggle, he’s approached to serve as a shomer, someone who watches over a body until it is buried. Typically a shomer is a family member, but in desperate circumstances, someone will be paid to serve this role. So Yakov takes up his post looking over the body of the deceased Mr. Litvak. But this isn’t going to be a night for easy money. As soon as Yakov settles in for his five-hour shift, strange things immediately start happening. He sees shadowy figures lurking in dark corners, he hears strange whispers and feels as if something is watching his every move. As the night progresses, he discovers that a mazzik, a type of demon, is haunting the home, its family and Yakov himself. It is feeding on them, using their grief and trauma to fuel its evil.
Central to the power of The Vigil is Davis’ performance as Yakov, created by both Davis’ performance and Thomas’ writing. The film has a short and sweet runtime of 90 minutes, and with that short amount of time, Davis and Thomas are able to create a complex character that has gone through a life of both love and despair. Davis’ frustrated and sorrow-filled face tells a story of a man who just wants to live a life that is his own. Paired with those facial expressions, Thomas’ script quickly and effectively showcases both Yakov’s naivety in the world of technology and women—as he literally Googles “how to talk to women”—and his strength, as he prepares to face off with the mazzik. This is not a generic horror character that blends into the wallpaper, but someone worth cheering for until the credits roll.
Supporting Davis is a phenomenal use of light that initially creates a sense of comfort that quickly shifts into terror. The Litvak home is dark, with colorful glass lamps casting small halos of light that only create small bubbles of safety throughout the first floor. It would almost feel cozy if there wasn’t a heavy atmosphere of dread trying to smother out those lamps. Thomas is utilizing every available technical element as efficiently as possible; there isn’t a reliance on professional lighting, but instead on what can be realistically accessed within an actual home. The culmination of the film’s lighting is reminiscent of the iconic scene in Hereditary where, as eyes adjust, horrors are revealed. Though familiar, the trick here is utilized with more movement and a well-timed jump scare that doesn’t make it feel like a direct copy.
Speaking of jump scares, The Vigil has them and they are good. There is the eternal debate about jump scares and their benefit to horror films, and this film makes the case for their effectiveness. There are no cheap moments of loud door slams, but instead extremely upsetting, well-constructed moments that generate terror. In the film’s biggest shock scene, the audience knows it’s coming as the camera is glued to Yakov’s eyes. It follows him as he slowly turns around to face what he knows is standing behind him. The audience expects the scare, but they are denied it right away, which ramps up the tension even further. Thomas’ work to create such well-timed and well-deserved jump scares makes The Vigil all the more scary to watch—Thomas wants the audience to truly experience Yakov’s fear.
While the jump scares are briefly thrilling, much of the film’s horror comes from its navigation of the effects of intergenerational trauma. Religion is often followed closely by trauma in the world of genre film: Father Karras in The Exorcist is grieving the death of his mother, the couple in The Omen lose their child during birth, Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby is stripped of all bodily autonomy in the name of Satan. While The Vigil follows in those footsteps, Thomas is not focused on creating his own Father Karras. This is a film more interested in examining how traumas interact with one another through the use of flashbacks into the pasts of both Yakov and the Litvaks. The technique is used for brief glimpses at Yakov witnessing the murder of a loved one and the Litvaks’ experience during the Holocaust. This is not a single tale of redemption to be found in God, but rather a film about finding grace and acceptance from within. In never prioritizing one traumatic event over another, Thomas is able to create a more nuanced narrative about the complicated relationship with faith and the self.
In a subgenre so full of men armed with Bibles, crucifixes and holy water, Yakov’s own battle with faith is a breath of fresh air. Catholic iconography is replaced by the tefillin, small black boxes affixed to the head with leather straps wound around the arms. This is a story that, while following the expected story beats of possession films, still feels unique thanks to Thomas’ specificity and dedication to creating something lean and mean. The Vigil hopefully marks a trend where Catholicism no longer reigns supreme in the world of horror and filmmakers of all creeds can continue to play with decades of generic expectations.
Directors: Keith Thomas
Writers: Keith Thomas
Stars: Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Lynn Cohen
Release Date: February 26, 2021
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.