Review: Jewish Themed Horror ‘The Vigil’

Keith Thomas writes and directs The Vigil, his debut feature film, released through Blumhouse Productions. Thomas’s film is an impressive one in its rich, unsettling aesthetics, its rigid sense of suspense which permeates from the onset, and through its roots in Jewish culture, folklore and mysticism.

Haunted by past tragedy, Yakov (Dave Davis) takes a job as a Shomer for the Litvak family – a role in the Orthodox Jewish community which sees someone take watch through the night over the recently deceased to protect them from unseen evils. As Yakov sits in the Litvak house presiding over the body, unusual occurrences begin to take place in the house.

It is refreshing and exciting to see Jewish ritual and folklore as the context for this horror as so often the focus is on Catholic contexts in the genre. Our protagonist Yakov is one that is distant from his faith – only accepting the Shomer role for the money – despite those from his synagogue attempting to guide him back to his Jewish roots. After an antisemitic attack on Yakov and his younger brother ending in tragedy, Yakov is distant and uncomfortable with his faith – something which he is forced to confront head-on as the events in the Yakov household transgress.

As Yakov spends the night in the house, Thomas has the chance to play with some bold horror imagery and cinematic tension, with events essentially playing out like a traditional, albeit very effective Blumhouse haunted house tale. From unusual noises from the elderly Mrs Litvak upstairs, cockroaches scuttling, an eerie video recordings of Yakov asleep, and various hallucinations, Thomas plays with the tropes of the genre effectively – crafting a moody and unsettling haunted house horror. There are also elements of body horror which also add another uncomfortable edge to The Vigil.

Set in the claustrophobic Litvak house, adorned with dated brown decor and sixties inspired furniture, there is a troubled stuffiness to the setting – something that further enhances Yakov’s discomfort and unease throughout the night. This makes an effective setting for this tale to unfold upon, particularly as the film is set entirely through the night with no natural light or daylight seen whatsoever.

With this claustrophobic setting in use, when The Vigil veers further down the supernatural Jewish folklore route it allows for Thomas to utilise some excellent tense dynamics and well-orchestrated jump scares. Practical horror effects come into play when the Mazik (a demon in Jewish mysticism) appears, echoing the creatures of the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth – added furthering impressive horror clout.

The film’s ending may feel somewhat rushed and unfulfilled of the well-built up narrative tension, however, it is an effective means of taking Yakov’s narrative journey full circle.

The Vigil is a distinctive and original horror feature that impresses in its precision when executing some well-orchestrated horror tropes. By embracing Jewish folklore and mysticism, and tackling genuine societal issues such as the effects of antisemitism, The Vigil is a horror picture well and truly worth your time.

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