You can delve into any culture on the planet and find a rich canon of ghost and demon lore, but there’s something that hits deeper about the ancient ones. In director Keith Thomas’ debut The Vigil, we catch a glimpse into the Jewish concept of mazzikim—what we might call a mid-tier ghost or demon that, within the confines of the film, feeds off the pain of mortals. There’s more to unpack there as far as the real-world lore goes, but here we just know the entity is malevolent.
We join Yakov (Dave Davis), a young Jewish man who left a more devout lifestyle and community following tragic events. He struggles with money and mental health, so when someone from his old life shows up with $500 and asks him to perform shomer duties (a Jewish tradition whereupon someone must sit with a newly dead body through the first night following the death to protect a departing soul from evil forces). Yakov reluctantly agrees, but creepy stuff ensues as something begins stalking him, toying with his mental illness and forcing him to question his own sanity and beliefs.
The Vigil scores major points in the lighting, pacing and atmosphere departments. Much of the film takes place in one living room. The house, where the deceased Rubin Litvak (Ronald Cohen) lived with his wife (Lynn Cohen), is oppressively dark and unsettling, and numerous lamps fail to cast light beyond their own immediate vicinity. It seems Rubin may have brought something with him back from the Buchenwald concentration camp following WWII, and Mrs. Litvak roaming the halls and popping up now and again doesn't help. Somehow worse, the being begins assuming the voice or appearance of those Yakov trusts and tries to reach by phone for help. No, thanks.
Davis is a wonder in the darkness, all pins and needles and pained expressions driven not only by the imminent ghost peril, but haunted by the tragedy which shook his faith (no spoilers). Carrying a film on one's own is hard work, doing it with minimal dialogue seems even harder. And so it goes, with Yakov jumping at each new discovery that appears throughout the longest night ever and Davis' masterful performance keeping us rapt.
As debuts go, Thomas excels in most areas. There's a high bar of entry here for those unfamiliar with Jewish traditions or stories—and even for those with a passing knowledge. It would have been nice to dig deeper into those ideas, though perhaps there's something to be said about the thing you don't know being the scariest thing of all. Still, the language of scares is fairly universal, and The Vigil's most intense moments are almost always its most unique. Here's hoping Thomas keeps going with horror and here's hoping any fans of the genre don't skip this one, even if it's not the scariest movie ever.
+Pretty scary; fresh in places
-Bewildering climax; stale in other places
Directed by Thomas
With Davis and Cohen
Amazon, PG-13, 89 min.