One of the best Blumhouse features in years is also the most lowkey. The Vigil, a horror film stamped with a refreshingly unique cultural identity, arrives on Amazon Prime Video after a bafflingly ill-timed theatrical run earlier this year, followed by a pay-per-view debut some weeks later. Third time’s the charm.
The Vigil is basically a foreign language film, based on the Orthodox Jews in New York City. This is an even more insular story about the Jewish community than James Grey’s Two Lovers, or the Safdies’ Uncut Gems. To conjure claustrophobia, director Keith Thomas relies less on the haunted house setting and more on the inherent discomfort of being born inside a fringe group.
Watch The Vigil trailer here
We meet our protagonist, Yakov, in a deftly directed opening scene that sets up his inner conflict, and also kicks the plot into motion. Yakov is somewhat of a lapsed Hasidic Jew — a tragic incident in his recent past, it is hinted, sparked a crisis of faith in him. Strapped for cash and barely able to summon the confidence to talk to a girl he has his eye on, Yakov accepts an emergency offer for a rather unsettling gig.
An old acquaintance basically guilt-trips him into accepting the job of a ‘shomer’ — someone who must ‘keep vigil’ over the body of a recently deceased person overnight, protecting it from evil spirits by occasionally reciting holy verses, but mostly, giving their departed souls company. Typically, a ‘shomer’ would be someone from the deceased’s own family, but we are told that Mr Litvak — the dead guy — was a bit of a loner. All he’s left behind is a house of horrors and a creepy old wife.
Almost immediately after Yakov arrives at the house, Mrs Litvak issues a chilling warning — leave before it is too late. Brushing her words aside as the ravings of a senile woman, he settles in for the nightlaylist at the ready, a woman to text, and a dead body right next to him. Things begin to get weird.
At first, the scare tactics are basic. Lights begin to flicker, stuff goes ‘creak’ and ‘crash’ in the dark, but Yakov soon realises that something isn’t right. Barely invested in the job, he tries to convince Mrs Litvak to leave with him, and wait for the others to arrive in the morning, as they’d promised. But she refuses. She tells him that she’s been marked by the Mazzik — a malevolent spirit from Jewish mythology — and that chances are, by now, he has too. The Mazzik targets only the ‘broken’, and terrorises them by taking a disturbing deep-dive into their already brittle psyches.
Not only is The Vigil one of the finest horror films in recent years, it is one of the few scary movies to explore Jewish culture, period. The last, if I recall correctly, was the fairly solid (but unimaginatively titled) Sam Raimi production, The Possession, inspired by the creepy urban myth of the haunted Dybbuk Box.
But while that film was a straight-up schlock-fest, The Vigil, in a surprising turn of events, turns out to be a potent drama about Jewish trauma — an inherited infliction that no one from the community, even fence-sitters like Yakov, can evade. Mr Litvak’s Holocaust past is revealed, and the film’s broad allegory about the passing on of generational pain begins to take shape. The Vigil works as a horror movie not only in the traditional sense, but like the best films in the genre, it evokes terror by invading your subconscious, and resisting the urge to bombard you with jump scares.
Also read: His House movie review: Netflix’s unsettling haunted house film unleashes real horrors
Christianity seemingly had this market cornered, but Keith Thomas’ debut feature, steeped as it is in a richly detailed milieu crammed with ancient rituals, is one for the ages. To overcome the horrors of the past, it says, one must first be willing to confront them. And to enjoy real horror films, one must first be willing to watch them.
Director – Keith Thomas
Cast – Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Fred Melamed, Lynn Cohen
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar