You can always rely on the horror genre to find religious rituals and turn them into an anxiety inducing, terrifying experience. Whether drenched in a Midsommar sun watching a brutal suicide custom or being sacrificed in a ritual offering to a Norse God in, er, The Ritual, there is a wealth of religious ceremonies for horror filmmakers to mine for scares. This is exactly what debut filmmaker, Keith Thomas, does with The Vigil.
The premise is a doozy. Strapped for cash and making moves to distance himself from his former Orthodox Jewish community, and old friend and rabbi comes to Dave Davis’ Yakov for one last job. Yakov needs to be a shomer for the night, a spiritual guardian of the dead who watches over the deceased in between their death and their burial. Upon hearing the previous shomer left the house suddenly and citing strange incidents, you have all the ingredients for a haunted house of things that go bump in the night.
The Vigil does an impressive job early doors in establishing a real sense of discomfort for Yakov and the audience. Upon his arrival, the deceased remains in the background in every shot, carefully framing Yakov to the right of the body, forcing the inquisitive viewers to dart their eyes from the protagonist and the blanketed corpse. With much of horror cinemas tendency to use the entire frame, you often find yourself peering through ajar doors and watching shadows, uncertain if you just saw something move.
Despite its very low budget, it’s clear how much attention has been given to designing the house to both feel authentically inhabited by a now-widowed old woman and yet fundamentally creepy for a stranger to enter. The portraits that cover the walls all have something that feels off about them, never certain if they’re watching our unfortunate nightwatchman. The geography of the house is very nicely established, and a feeling of claustrophobia remains throughout given how cramped and cluttered the house feels, but you’ll become accustomed quickly to checking shadowy corners a little more regularly as the film progresses.
Dave Davis anchors the film impressively; tasked with spending much of the film in silence without anyone to talk to, he imbues Yakov with a believable level of fear in the circumstances, but mercifully, Yakov never feels like a character in a horror film. As the film progresses, you learn about Yakov’s past in a backstory that’s fed to you piece by piece, revealing that his role as shomer for this specific night may have been guided by divine intervention. Davis tackles the horror side of his character effectively, but it’s the emotional undercurrent of Yakov that makes him feel like a character you want to root for.
While the untrusting Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen), the newly widowed inhabitant, is only seen in short bursts, but her appearances are a constant source of fear and discomfort. In one of the film’s standout scariest sequences, in which Yakov’s phone mysteriously has a video of him sleeping in the lounge, Mrs. Litvak has the air of someone who knows exactly what’s going on in the house but keeps Yakov around after initial uncertainty upon learning of the skeleton’s in Yakov’s closet. Mrs. Litvak becomes a tell-tale sign for incoming scares, but as with Yakov, her character slowly begins to unravel into humanity as the mystery reveals itself.
Despite its impressive work with its characters, The Vigil stumbles in the execution of its scares. There are some genuinely uncomfortable moments – the aforementioned sleeping video, and one particularly frightening moment that uses silence and a possible demonic silhouette to terrify Yakov – but these moments are sadly drowned out by a needless commitment to the quiet quiet BANG approach to creating scares. There are far too many instances of jump scares courtesy of a loud noise added in post-production that frustratingly put a dampener on a film that has an unsettling vibe for much of its runtime. Even its central demon, referred to as a Mazzik, feels like a wasted opportunity. It’s rarely shown clearly on screen, only far off in the background, in quick flashes, during a blurred point of view, or shrouded in darkness. The Mazzik does feel ruthless (a sequence that sees Yakov try to escape but the Mazzik breaks his arms and knees from a distance is particularly harrowing) but its presence is under-developed in the film’s grand designs.
While The Vigil may not be the scariest horror film you’ll see this year, with its underused demon and over-reliance on loud noises to create scares, it is worth your time for the care it has for its characters, and Dave Davis more than holds his own in what is more often than not a one-man show. A pretty impressive effort for a directorial debut.
The Vigil is already available in the UK and opens in Select Theatres, on Digital Platforms and VOD on February 26th in the US