There is always a yin and yang when it comes to writing fiction. In plays and musicals, it’s laughter and sadness; in horror that duplicity often comes through in the form of religion, its both its source and its salvation. Catholicism is usually the go-to for possession movies. Take, for example, The Conjuring, The Exorcism, and Netflix’s high-tech spiritualism of Eli. Upside-down crosses are replaced for Kippahs in The Vigil. This fantastic film is defining a new genre of horror: Jewish horror. It is an untapped bounty for screenwriters. There are plenty of demons to bring the scare factor and a whole new perspective on death. The Vigil by writer/director Keith Thomas is a haunting, beautifully made creeper that is bone-crunchingly scary.
From a technical point of view, this movie could be an instant classic. The home’s acoustics, where nearly all of the action occurs, is a quiet tomb of death until it isn’t. The intricate notes of anticipation, compound, and layer forming a beautiful and frightening film. But don’t take my words as scripture. Thomas wanted something that would sound both familiar and utterly unknowable, “Sound design was going to be a huge component. It was a matter of tweaking each noise in post-production, and keeping it cognizant during the actual filming.” The clock in the film was chosen specifically for the chime.
Visually The Vigil is dark. Every moment feels as if something just outside your view holds danger. The shadows work in concert with the limited life to force you into Yakov’s perspective. It is all-consuming and profoundly affecting. Noise and visuals dovetailed to induce claustrophobic fear.
Dave Davis, the actor who plays the lead, Yakov, brought his own real-world experiences to the movie. During his first year of college, Dave experienced the death of a close friend. During our interview, Dave talked about “the need to put his hand on his friend’s chest” despite uncomfortable feelings otherwise. And during that split second, he felt like he traded places with his friend, feeling his friend tell him it was going to be okay. Although Dave wasn’t devout spiritually before the film, Dave learned a lot about his community during production. That shines in his dynamic performance.
It was important for Thomas and the rest of the crew to be authentic to Jewish life. The crew behind the scenes worked with the community near the set to make the space feel as real as possible. The set looks and feels like someone’s home because it is. The kitchen, for example, was filled with utensils from a local store. The ritual on which the movie is based, Shomer, is relatively commonplace. The psychological hell Yakav faces when watching over the dead body is not. Davis did his homework too, “the accent wasn’t always there; learning each sentence meant understanding each word forwards and back both literally and phonetically.” His attention to detail shows.
Finally, Thomas’s script is superb. The Vigil is a meticulously paced, unrelenting onslaught of creeping dread. Both physical and emotional manifestations of the demon appear throughout the film in unique ways. Yakov faces his psychological torment while facing his physical pain. Thomas argues that ” having to go back to what you fear the most- facing more pain- is worse than having someone just follow you when you leave.” When a demon like the Dybbuk captures a new play thing, it won’t let go. Which brings us to the next artful choice, bone breaking. Which ones? All of them. This form of body horror is so sincere and realistic, that the cringe resulting from it is the gut reaction of the audiences empathy. The crunch and snap from Yakov’s seemingly brittle bones cascade into a beautiful cacophony of agony.
The domino effect of the perfect house, with the perfect sound design, the ideal actor, and the perfect script, brings together one of the best movies of 2021. It is atmospheric and patient as it builds tension and fear. It won’t be something you will forget. What The Exorcist did for Judeo-Christain demonic possession, The Vigil does for Jewish Dybbuks. In all honesty, I could ramble on and on about how amazing this film is, but it’s better to experience it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed. You can stream The Vigil right now on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, or VUDU.
Obsessed with the old gods and everything that resembles Lovecraft, Zach spends his days exploring the twists of horror films and can’t wait to discuss the latest explanations of any story