The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - THE VIGIL | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - THE VIGIL

the vigil review
A former Hasidic Jew experiences a night of terror when agrees to watch over the body of a deceased Holocaust survivor.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Keith Thomas

Starring: Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Fred Melamed, Lynn Cohen

the vigil poster

Like any religion, Judaism has its fair share of demons and malevolent spirits. Yet while some of the most famous American horror movies have been directed by Jewish filmmakers, including the very Christian themed The Exorcist and The Omen, very few are set within a Jewish milieu. In the past decade we've seen Hebrew folklore pop up in American horror movies like 2009's The Unborn and 2012's The Possession, both of which concern the mythical entity known as the "dybbuk", an evil spirit that possesses a living host. I can't think of an American horror movie that immerses itself so deeply in Jewish mythology as writer/director Keith Thomas's The Vigil however, which is peppered with so many culturally specific references that gentile viewers may find themselves popping onto Wikipedia following their screening.

the vigil review

Having grown up in Brooklyn's Hasidic Jewish community, Yakov (Dave Davis) has now left the neighbourhood  and is attempting to integrate himself into secular New York. As he outlines to his support group, his former life was so sheltered that he's finding it impossible to land a job and is forced to choose between "medication and food" (though that's hardly a problem unique to his particular circumstances). Desperate for cash, he reluctantly agrees to act as a paid 'Shomer' when approached by Reb (Menashe Lustig, whom it's nice to see getting some work after his great turn in the Yiddish language drama Menashe a few years back), a member of the community he's been attempting to distance himself from.

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The role of a Shomer is to sit by the body of a recently deceased Jew in order to keep any evil spirits at bay, and in this case Yakov is required to keep vigil over the corpse of a Mr Litvak, a Holocaust survivor. When Yakov inquires as to why nobody from the community is willing to act as Shomer for the man, Reb gives him a muddied reply about the last Shomer being too scared, but Yakov doesn't seem to bothered by this news. Even when Litvak's wife (Lynn Cohen) argues against Yakov keeping watch, he ignores her hysterics and settles down at midnight for what he believes will be a few quiet hours until the body is removed at dawn.

the vigil review

Of course, Yakov finds himself subjected to a night of terror, beginning with creaky noises in the house and strange figures scuttling in the shadows. When he receives a message to his phone containing a video file apparently made by someone who filmed him while he was nodding off for a few minutes of shuteye, he immediately calls his psychiatrist (Fred Melamed), assuming he's imagining such terrors. But as the night progresses, it becomes clear that none of this is in Yakov's head, and that an evil entity that plagued Mr Litvak is now looking for a new host.

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Take away the Yiddish and Hebrew terminology and for the most part, The Vigil is a rather generic tale of things going bump in the night. What makes it stand out is its central theme of survivor's guilt, something its antagonistic spirit latches onto. The movie opens with a flashback to an incident during WWII which has clearly left Litvak psychologically and emotionally scarred for the remainder of his lengthy life, and we're drip fed flashes of a more recent incident that has similarly left its mark on Yakov. It's this notion of torturing yourself for being able to carry on with life while others weren't so fortunate that most clearly marks The Vigil as a specifically Jewish piece of horror storytelling.

the vigil review

Its intriguing cultural context aside, The Vigil does little to set itself apart from the average horror movie of its ilk. Davis is a convincing presence as the increasingly unnerved Yakov, and the shadowy cinematography and production design effectively turn the Litvak's home into a menacing spook house. The opening half of the film is atmospheric, as like Yakov, we're not sure what we're getting into here, but once the frights begin it descends into cheap jump scares and becomes overly reliant on its screechy sound design. One particularly clunky scene that recalls a similar moment in Get Out sees Yakov seated before a TV screen to watch an exposition dump. Yakov's backstory feels like a dated product of the 2000s, when horror filmmakers were trying to ape M. Night Shyamalan's theme of destiny catching up with troubled protagonists at just the right time. Much like how Hollywood is currently lazily rehashing old movies by reversing the gender or swapping the race of characters, The Vigil's Jewish wrappings might be a welcome cultural addition to the horror genre, but take away its theme of survivor's guilt and it's little more than a reworking of a formula we've seen too many times before.

The Vigil is on Netflix UK now.

2020 movie reviews