A man estranged from his faith is paid to stand vigil over a deceased member of the Orthodox Jewish community he once used to be a part of. He is forced to confront an ancient entity while also confronting his past.
I, personally, am a big fan of Jewish horror films. We constantly see Catholic-based possession stories, so it’s always a welcome change to see a horror film rooted in different religions and traditions. The Vigil is definitely top-tier Jewish horror. Surprisingly, this is the feature-film debut for writer and director Keith Thomas, and he definitely makes an impact with this film. The film follows a man named Yakov. After a traumatic experience, he leaves the Orthodox Jewish community he grew up in. Hard up for money, he agrees to take a paid gig as an overnight Shomer. A Shomer is someone in the Jewish faith who watches and prays over the deceased. It seems like an easy enough job, until Yakov begins to see things in the house.
There are two aspects of the plot that completely draw me in. The first is that the film teaches audiences not of the Jewish faith about things they might not have known about. Horror is great when it’s scary or fun, but it’s even better when it can teach you something new and fascinating. The entire film also acts as a great metaphor, and sometimes a more on-the-nose take, on how people deal with trauma and grief. It brilliantly uses horror to show what can happen if you don’t process the trauma of your past and how it can affect the rest of your life. Thomas really does a fantastic job of telling a compelling story that is also truly terrifying. While there is one final shot at the end of the film that has the potential to be a plot hole, it’s so fleeting it is easy to ignore.
The Vigil has an incredibly strong cast. Dave Davis (True Detective, Logan) stars as Yakov. For the most part, Yakov is alone throughout the film, so Davis has to carry a majority of the film on his truly capable shoulders. Davis especially shines in how he conveys Yakov’s PTSD and grief. Even in moments that are more lighthearted, Davis still shows the trauma lurking just below the surface. Another great performance comes from Lynn Cohen (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Munich) as Mrs. Litvak, the widow of the deceased. Cohen really straddles the line of being a somewhat creepy elderly woman with dementia and a harbinger offering helpful words of wisdom. She also helps to create some of the most haunting moments of the entire film. These two actors also play off of each other quite well, resulting in powerful, memorable performances.
In order to create fear, it’s important to have strong visuals and sound. The Vigil has absolutely stunning cinematography and lighting. This is especially evident in the scenes within the home of the deceased. There is a gorgeous balance of cool vs. warm lighting dividing the home that also emphasizes the cinematography. Then there is the ancient, evil entity itself. The design for this being is absolutely horrifying and wisely only shown in a few short moments, allowing the audience’s imaginations to do the rest. On more than one occasion, quick shots of something unsettling are used to create imagery that is terrifying, while likely giving some audience members nightmares. Bringing all of these visuals together is a phenomenal musical score by Michael Yezerski that only adds to the horror.
The Vigil is a beautiful film about grief that is as powerful as it is frightening. There is a deep emotional core to the film that adds depth to the plot while also driving the the fear the evil entity brings to the surface. Davis’s performance also adds so much to the film, making it even more enjoyable to watch. Include the gorgeous visuals and brilliant musical score, and the result is a film that is guaranteed to be on many “top 10 of 2021” lists by the end of the year. This is such a strong feature-film debut for Thomas that it is sure to make horror fans take note and eagerly away what he will do next.
OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10