Movie Review: 'The Vigil'
A Jewish twist on supernatural horror, The Vigil works by dressing familiar tropes in new clothes.
The Vigil uses the specificity of Jewish tradition to put a fresh spin on the supernatural horror genre. Dave Davis stars in The Vigil as Yakov, a former member of an orthodox Jewish community. A tragedy in his recent past led Yakov to reassess his faith and leave the orthodox tradition. He’s found support in a support group of fellow former orthodox Jews. The group includes Sarah who is the first non-orthodox woman Yakov has had an opportunity to spend time with.
Yakov’s fish out of water status could be a movie all its own but that is not where The Vigil is headed. Instead, following his most recent support group meeting, Yakov is sought out by Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), a long time friend in the orthodox community. While Reb does wish to talk to Yakov about returning to the community and the faith, he’s come to see him for a different reason on this night.
A member of the orthodox community has died and someone is needed to sit in Vigil with the body. It’s a tradition in the orthodox community for someone to be chosen to sit with the body of a community member, to watch over and keep them safe. The first person chosen for this task has run off and Shulem, knowing that Yakov needs money to pay his rent, seeks out Yakov to take on the task of the vigil.
Needing the money, Yakov reluctantly agrees and finds himself back in his old neighborhood. The home is that of a man that Yakov never met and that man’s wife, Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen) who has dementia. Her presence is fearsome and strange. She first tells Yakov that he can’t be there and her repeated appearances throughout the time Yakov is sitting in vigil gain a creepier vibe as the story progresses.
What comes next are the kinds of scares you expect from a supernatural movie but shot through the fresh lens of Jewish traditions. Writer-Director Keith Thomas freshens up his supernatural horror by grounding it in the Jewish faith. Yes, you will recognize many tropes of supernatural or demonic horror movies, but with the character of Yakov and the grounding in the Jewish tradition, you have a new coat of paint on these well worn tropes. And, with the character of Yakov, you have a non-traditional lead character for this kind of horror movie.
Star Dave Davis delivers a terrific lead performance that carries the uniqueness of being a specifically Jewish character while carrying on a story that has widely relatable aspects such as grief, trauma, confusion and a crisis of belief. You don’t have to be Jewish to relate to Yakov and Dave Davis is terrific at drawing you into his performance not with spectacular charisma but rather with an every-man quality that happens to have a specificity of faith.
The many elements that Davis has to bring to the character of Yakov are quite the acting challenge. For a large portion of The Vigil, Davis is just alone in a creepy house with a dead body and the clever direction and manipulation of genre elements make that compelling But then, you have to consider that he has to carry the weight of a backstory in orthodox Judaism that is marked by a tragic trauma and play the other side of Yakov, the fish out of water side, that is at odds with his new place in the fast paced world outside his cloistered community.
Davis is great at bringing all of these disparate forces together in Yakov. His confusion and awkwardness in his new life while also being drawn back to his former life is a fresh perspective for a character in what is otherwise a highly familiar horror context. The Vigil is not reinventing the wheel when it comes to supernatural horror. Instead, through the character of Yakov, The Vigil freshens up the perspective of the familiar aspects of the genre.
Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make a good genre movie. Find a slightly unconventional way to tell a conventional story. The Vigil does just that. And, the movie has some really solid jump scares and well staged misdirection scares. My favorite moment in the movie is a simple camera set up that frames Yakov with his back to the dead body under a sheet in the background. Yakov is listening to music on his phone and all we can do is stare a hole into that corpse waiting to see if and when it will move.
The Vigil opens in virtual and traditional theaters on February 26th and will be available soon after via your favorite streaming rental services.