★★★★ out of ★★★★★
The Vigil puts a unique cultural spin on evil entity horror and boasts an incredible lead performance.
Directed by Keith Thomas
Writer/director Keith Thomas’s feature film debut The Vigil combines good old-fashioned haunted house scares and demonic entity chills with Jewish lore, resulting in a fascinating, eerie, and highly entertaining outing. Dave Davis’s outstanding lead performance alone is worth seeking out this film, but there are plenty of other reasons to do so, as well. This one is an early contender for my list of top 10 horror films of the year.
Davis portrays Yakov Ronen, a young man riddled with guilt, anxiety, and PTSD who is leaving his Orthodox Jewish community. We meet him in a support group, during and after which he displays difficulty in such areas as learning to use his new smartphone, applying for jobs, and talking comfortably with women. When his former Rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) offers him much-needed cash to sit shomer from midnight until dawn, saying psalms over a dead body to keep evil spirits away. This being a horror movie, and a terrific one at that, well-versed fright-fare fans can guess that this gig isn’t going to go smoothly for Yakov. The deceased man’s widow Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen), who suffers from dementia, wants him out of the house as soon as the two meet, but Yakov stays, and it isn’t long before odd noises escalate into terrifying visions mixed with horrifying memories from Yakov’s past. The deceased was followed by decades by a mazik, a diabolical spirit that the film explains well for those unfamiliar with Jewish lore, and now the entity is seeking out a new victim.
Davis is pitch perfect in the role of the emotionally tortured Yakov. The actor’s expressive facial expressions and eyes do as much to build suspense and frights as do Thomas’s stirring bag of tricks, which range from expected shocking sounds and jump scares to tense, unrelentingly suspenseful longer set pieces. Davis gets plenty of solo screen time to give life to his troubled character, and he does it with aplomb. He also has splendid chemistry with Cohen, who gets some fine showcase scenes of her own.
Thomas’s screenplay combines first-rate drama with its horror elements, making both the story and the characters stronger, and Thomas proves himself highly adept at writing and helming both styles. Although the religious background of The Vigil’s characters might be unfamiliar to some viewers, the human drama and emotions are universally relatable. The film is stronger because of its dramatic elements. Zach Kuperstein’s admirable cinematography, Michael Yezerski’s fine score, and the sound department’s top-notch work all deserve mention, as well.
The Vigil, from IFC Midnight, is available in select theaters, on digital platforms, and on VOD from February 26, 2021.