Move aside exorcisms and antichrists. Horror has a new religious angle: the Shomer. The Vigil is a fresh and unsettling debut by first-time writer/director, Keith Thomas. The film takes place over the course of one night, inside a claustrophobic home in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood. We first meet our protagonist, Yakov (played beautifully by Dave Davis), at a support group for young adults who have recently left their Hasidic lifestyle. Yakov appears to be struggling especially (outside of trying to navigate a freshly secular life in New York), shrouded in some hidden trauma that is yet to be revealed.
Surviving on his last dime and having to “choose between medication and meals”, Yakov begrudgingly accepts a job offer from his former rabbi. Our sweet but troubled main character will be paid to take on the role of being a “Shomer”. This is the traditional Jewish practice of watching over the physical body of a recently deceased community member, while protecting their soul overnight from any evil entities. While being a Shomer is a normalized facet of Jewish culture, something seems strange. Yakov’s rabbi mentions that all other Shomer options quickly left this home, due to fear. Our story plot thickens as we discover the decedent is not only a Holocaust survivor but he and his wife, Mrs. Litvak, are reclusive shut-ins.
A single night in a tiny rowhome, watching a corpse under a white sheet is already unsettling enough on its own. And yet, things become worse as Mrs. Litvak angrily tells Yakov to leave for his own safety. Needing to stay once again out of necessity, our protagonist attempts to distract himself by listening to music and googling how to assimilate into normal society…all with a dead body behind him, in camera shot. The most chilling aspect of this scene is that Yakov is able to turn his back on the body, where most people (myself included) would be petrified to even blink for fear that the corpse would twitch. Him being able to do this is just another cue to show us how culturally different his upbringing was compared to the average secular American’s.
The hands on the grandfather clock crawl, regardless of Yakov’s (and our) desire for them to sprint until they arrive at five am. Unfortunately, only minutes have passed as we begin to hear heavy shufflings from upstairs and see dark shadows shift in the kitchen. The house begins to feel like it’s shrinking, as Yakov starts to question whether what’s happening is real or if it’s a delusion.
The feeling of being suffocated starts nearly within the first second of the film, as a gasping breath is heard pounding steadily around us. Each harsh inhale has the ability to make the viewer feel smaller and smaller – I felt myself reflexively grab for my throat to make sure it wasn’t tightening. This subtle effect carries well throughout the film, and is more powerful than many of the jump scares it features.
Not only is The Vigil chilling, it is relatable regardless of Hasidic context. The human experience proves to be universal even while cloistered, as we watch Yakov struggle so deeply with his mental health. His lack of stable income and affordable health care causes Yakov to not always be able to take his medication. This opens the floor for something even scarier than some lurking evil in the shadows: that it’s all in his head. We watch Yakov painfully unravel his past trauma, fight whatever evil has taken residence in the Litvak home, and struggle with faith and feelings of guilt. Even with all of these angles, we never lose sight of the horror aspect of the film. Every moment that gives us the beat to let our guard down, a jump scare swoops in.
A true performance at facing both metaphorical and physical demons, Dave Davis deserves immense credit for his role. His portrayal of a man that is haunted before the scary story even begins, is enough to appreciate The Vigil. The climax of the film was a bit lackluster; fighting ancient, all-powerful evil seemed a little too easy. But between the acting and the superstitious overtones, this movie has a lot to offer viewers. Keith Thomas also did an excellent job in lifting the veil to show viewers a mix of Jewish history and folklore, without trampling on their religious integrity. The greatest takeaway from this film, is a new character device to be used in the religious sub-genre. After watching The Vigil, it’s shocking that the Shomer hasn’t been popularly used in horror films of the past.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Keith Thomas
Writer(s): Keith Thomas
Stars: Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Lynn Cohen
Release date: February 26, 2021
Studio/Production Company: Blumhouse Productions, Boulderlight Pictures
Language: English, Yiddish, Hebrew
Run Time: 89 minutes