April 3, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Keith Thomas
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the horror film “The Vigil” features an all-white cast of characters representing a middle-class Jewish American community.
Culture Clash: A man has ghostly encounters when he’s recruited to keep vigil over a recently deceased man’s body, as part of a Jewish religious custom.
Culture Audience: “The Vigil” will appeal primarily to people who like uncomplicated but spooky ghost stories.
Many horror stories try to be overly complex with plot twists galore or convoluted backstories for the characters. However, “The Vigil” (written and directed by Keith Thomas) takes an effective “less is more” approach by keeping the story simple while still delivering on some genuinely creepy scares. It’s the type of movie that does a lot with its modest budget.
“The Vigil” begins with a written on-screen intro that sets up what’s about to happen in the story: “For thousands of years, religious Jews have practiced the ritual of ‘the vigil.’ When a member of the community dies, the body is watched over ’round the clock in shifts by a shomer, or watchman, who recites the Psalms to comfort the deceased soul’s and protect it from unseen evil. This watchman is typically a family member or friend. Shomers are hired to sit the vigil when no on else can.”
The movie’s opening scene is of a SS Nazi officer (played by Hunter Menken) forcing a young man to shoot a woman while they are the woods. Meanwhile, a sinister shadowy creature approaches them from behind. A shotgun is heard, and then the movie’s next scene takes place in the present day. What happened in this World War II-era scene is later revealed in the story. At some point in the movie, it’s pretty easy to figure out who the young man is, but that doesn’t take away from how “The Vigil” succeeds at building a lot of horror suspense.
The majority of the film takes place in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where a group of Israeli Jewish immigrants, who are in their late 20s to mid-30s, have gathered for a house party dinner. There are four men and two women in attendance at this dinner. And based on the conversation, almost all of them have recently moved to New York City.
The leader of the group is named Lane (played by Nati Rabinowitz), who has lived in New York the longest and has been acting as an advisor to the rest of the immigrants. The dinner conversation is mostly casual but serious. A woman named Adinah (played by Lea Kalisch) remarks that men in the U.S. are more sexually forward than men in Israel.
A man named Yakov Ronen (played by Dave Davis), who’s one of the older people in the group, is unemployed and mentions that he recently didn’t get a job that he wanted. Yakov also says that he’s financially struggling and that he’s had to choose between paying for medication or paying for meals. It’s never really made clear in the movie what type of career Yakov wants, but he gives the impression that he’s desperate for any type of job at this point.
Lane gives some words of comfort by saying, “This is a journey. And being here struggling the way you are is only one stop on that journey. If we get bogged down and see this as a destination, we lose hope.” Is this a dinner party or a support group meeting? It seems to be both.
The other woman at the table is named Sarah (played by Malky Goldman), who begins flirting with Yakov. Eventually, she asks him out for a coffee date, and he says yes, so they exchange phone numbers. Yakov fumbles a little with his phone, and says it’s because his phone is new and he’s still getting used to you it. You know what that means in a horror story when it comes time to use a phone in an emergency.
After the dinner, a man named Reb Shulem (played by Menashe Lustig), who’s dressed as an Orthodox Jew and who’s been lurking outside the building, approaches Yakov and Lane as they walk outside. Lane scolds Reb and tells him not to harass members of this group. After Lane leaves, Reb begins talking to Yakov and asks him how Yakov likes his new lifestyle. Yakov cryptically says, “I have my reasons for leaving.”
Reb tells Yakov that a family whose patriarch has died needs a shomer to sit for a vigil at night until the following morning. The job will take approximately five hours. According to Reb, this sudden need came about because the shomer who was originally scheduled to do the vigil abruptly left and is no longer available.
Yakov is very reluctant at first, but he needs the money. It’s implied throughout the story that Yakov has lost his faith in religion. The movie later reveals why. Yakov offers $200 for the vigil job, but Yakov is able to negotiate it up to $500 because it’s a job that’s on short notice.
The deceased man whom Yakov has to watch over is named Rubin Litvak (played by Ronald Cohen), and all Yakov knows about him is from what Reb has told him: Rubin was a Holocaust survivor and his children are estranged from him. Reb says that when Rubin was alive, “he was a good man” but “a little weird” and he lived as a recluse with his wife. She goes by the name of Mrs. Litvak (played by Lynn Cohen), and her first name is not revealed in the film, but Reb tells Yakov that she has Alzheimer’s disease.
The Cohens’ house is in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. And as soon as they arrive, there’s some discord, because Mrs. Cohen, for whatever reason, doesn’t approve of Yakov. She tells Reb in a dismissive tone of voice what her thoughts are on Yakov, “He won’t work. He needs to leave now.”
Reb tells Mrs. Litvak that she has no choice because no one else is going to be available to be the shomer on short notice. And so, Mrs. Litvak agrees to let Yakov stay, but she isn’t very friendly to him. The house remains darkly lit for most of the story, to add to the creepy atmosphere.
Mr. Litvak’s body is covered in a white sheet in the living room. And Yakov begins his vigil by sitting nearby, he goes on his phone and does an online search for articles about how to talk to women. It isn’t long before things start to get weird, beginning with lamps that flicker for no reason.
“The Vigil” is definitely a “things that go bump in the night” movie, because the movie’s sound design and Michael Yezerski’s chilling music score go a long way in ramping up the horror and the tension in the story. Yakov also starts to see things and wonders if they’re real or not. Mrs. Litvak also lurks around and suddenly appears in “jump scare” moments.
One of the reasons why “The Vigil” is a good mystery is because it’s revealed later in the story that Yakov has had some mental-health issues. And so, viewers are left to wonder how much of what’s happening might just all be in his head, or if there really is a supernatural force in the house. At one point, Yakov calls his psychiatrist Dr. Marvin Kohlberg (played by Fred Melamed), which might or might nor help the situation.
Does Yakov try to leave? Of course he does. But something happens that reveals why Yakov became disillusioned with religion and possibly had a nervous breakdown. When he tries to leave the house, it’s a metaphor for him trying to run away from disturbing things from his past.
In his memorable portrayal of Yakov, whose scenes are in about 90% of the movie, Davis does an admirable job of conveying all the complexities and nuances of someone who has been struggling to find happiness, only to face a terror that he didn’t expect. Whether or not the horror is real or all in his head, the movies takes viewers on the same journey as Yakov and will make people feel his discomfort and pain. Lynn Cohen (who passed away in 2020) also gives an affective performance in “The Vigil,” which was one of her final appearances in a feature film.
“The Vigil” is a horror movie that isn’t particularly original, because there have been so many films about people trapped somewhere with frightening spirits. However, “The Vigil” stands out because of how it creatively blends ancient Jewish religious traditions in a setting of a modern Jewish American society. It’s definitely the type of movie that will have the biggest impact if it’s seen in a dark room on the biggest screen possible. And some viewers might feel like they have to sleep with the light on after seeing this haunting thriller.
IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “The Vigil” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 26, 2021.