Needing some money to tide him over, Yakov (Dave Davis) agrees to act as a Shomer for Mr. Litvak, a member of the Jewish Orthodox community who has recently died.
In accordance with Jewish practice, Yakov will watch over the body for the night and make sure it is protected from evil spirits. However, the deceased’s widow immediately expresses reservations about Yakov’s suitability for the task and, with the news that the original Shomer has departed the place because he felt too afraid, Yakov wonders exactly what he’s letting himself in for.
Writer/director Keith Thomas’ brilliant feature film debut, on first glance, fits neatly within the spectrally spoiled environment which inhabits the same block as the Insidious and Conjuring movies.
There’s a couple of spiritually-jump scares which would be right at home in either of those franchises and yet, as expertly wrought as they are, these feel slightly out of place going on unnecessary, given the overriding tone of the piece. This is more of a meditative tale where the real fear seeps from the shadows of past wrongdoings rather than the scary face which appears out of them.
A large chunk of the runtime focuses on just Yakov and hence the weight of the enterprise falls squarely on the shoulders of Davis, who is never anything less than excellent in the role.
When we first meet he’s taciturn, distant, and suffering not so much a crisis of faith as a bloody-minded lack of it. The character is slowly, skilfully developed as we are given glimpses of the events which have brought him to a spiritual crossroads which ironically makes him a prime target for the very evil he’s been brought in to ward off.
The Vigil is unusual in several ways, most notably that it introduces the audience to the practices of the Orthodox Jewish religion around the ceremony of death. For me, as someone who was not raised in the Jewish faith, it was both a respectful, thought-provoking glimpse into customs of which I was not previously aware and fertile ground for a classic horror story set-up as it delves into the mysticism surrounding the bridge between life and the afterlife.
Given the potential for the shriek-a-second shenanigans the central idea possesses – lone guy, covered body, dark house, the tick of the clock as the end of Yakov’s task becomes ever closer – the path The Vigil takes is a surprising and, I venture, much more satisfying, opting for a steadily building hum of dread which the odd quiet-quiet-quiet-BANG moment doesn’t damage.
The disturbing pasts of the living and the dead intersect in a battle for souls in both this world and the next. And the steadfastly low-key treatment of such individually high stakes makes for a disquieting night in the company of a memorably malevolent presence. The humble abode of the Litvaks provides a suitably claustrophobic setting as Yakov – and by that token the audience – becomes increasingly concerned as just what might be lurking just out of shot or in the failing light further down a hallway.
Yes, it’s Davis’ show but the support is vital at key points in the story and Thomas is not let down by his cast in any way. Lynn Cohen, as Mrs. Litvak, is particularly impressive, originally appearing to be cranky and unstable but providing Yakov with valuable insights into the life of her husband as he attempts to unravel the mystery of exactly why he is under so much of a threat, even in death.
In the first act, Menashe Lustig cuts a convincingly frustrated figure as Reb, trying to coax Yakov back into the faith but in no way willing to be taken for a financial ride by the stand-in Shomer.
In distilling the story to the essence of an intensely personal struggle in a single location, rather than unleashing an all-powerful entity to threaten to the wider community, Thomas allows the viewer to become fully invested in the trials of the main character. And having been given more than a few hints as to Yakov’s previous track record in the opening minutes, his chances don’t look the greatest unless he can come to terms with the horrendous, life-changing occurrence which sent him into such a spiral of desperation.
The last third of the movie cranks up all of the expected tension as our hero faces the prospect of a fate which is far worse than instant death. But the climax develops in the same style as the bulk of the film, avoiding fake histrionics but still delivering an emotional and chilling resolution. This somehow feels colossal yet cleverly matter-of-fact at the same time, with a lingering final shot that allows us to drift with the narrative one last time, questioning what you just saw (or may not have seen).
Quietly disturbing, superbly performed and with a genuinely fascinating investigation of a religion (not to mention the compelling mysticism within) which is seldom seen as the basis for a horror yarn, The Vigil is an understated, unsettling little gem of a movie in which less is so much more.
Its delicate, yet deep shocks may restore your wavering faith in the supernatural skirmish sub-genre. Keith Thomas is undoubtedly a name to watch out for.