Hebrew folklore and traditions have a long history in the horror genre. Vampires, werewolves, possession... some of the most prominent horror stories began life as Jewish folk tales, which are populated by golems, naamahs and dybbuks, long before most of these ideas were claimed by Christianity.
Set over the course of a single evening in Brooklyn's Hassidic "Boro" Park neighborhood, writer/director Keith Thomas' 'The Vigil' follows Yakov (an effectively gloomy Dave Davis, 'The Big Short'), a young man who has lost his faith in the insular religious Hebrew community. Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), a rabbi, approaches Yakov and offers to pay him to be the shomer - someone who watches over the recently deceased overnight to protect it from demons - for a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. Yakov reluctantly accepts the job. Shortly after arriving at the dilapidated house, he realises that something is very wrong. While the widow, Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen, who has been in literally everything, including stints as Magda on TV's 'Sex and the City' and Golda Meir in 'Spielberg retrospective') remains upstairs, Yakov reckons with a dybbuk of sorts that had apparently latched onto Mr Litvak at Buchenwald.
'The Vigil' looks good from the outset. The premise of the film is rooted in the Jewish practice of aninut, or the time between death and burial. The actual vigil shows the step of shemira, or sitting with the body, in the sequence of attending to tzorchei ha-met, or the needs of the dead. In the past, the ritual was partly practical - it was a way to protect the deceased from rats, thieves and anyone else who could desecrate the body. But today, it's a mark of respect and kindness. It's seen as a way to comfort a dead person's soul - which, according to Jewish tradition, is restless and confused shortly after death and hovers around the body for a few days.
It's part of a Hebrew mythology that has only been explored a few times recently, in films such as Ole Bornedal's terrible 'The Possession' and Doron and Yoav Paz's rather good 'The Golem'. It taps into the idea that, for Jews, horror is less supernatural than communal and historical. The film explores the significance of Holocaust trauma in the Jewish community and the underlying fear of not just demonic attack and possession but also of excommunication. Many Jews today live with intergenerational trauma of family stories of loss, tragedy, and real-life horror from the Holocaust. In 'The Vigil', this passing of trauma from one generation to the next is "personified" in the form of an evil demon.
Thomas' film takes place in one extremely underlit house, where creepy knocks and creaks help build an ominous atmosphere, but the director also manages to create a vivid sense of the neighbourhood (eerily deserted streets, ominous flights of steps) and the community, which I'd like to have seen explored more. Additionally, the film has a nice Stephen King vibe - imagine a combination of the short stories 'Gramma' and 'Sometimes They Come Back'. Despite Yakov's intentions to leave behind his community and the pain of his younger brother's untimely death, he literally cannot escape the trauma and haunting of the departed.
Many Jews today live with intergenerational trauma of family stories of loss, tragedy, and real-life horror from the Holocaust. In 'The Vigil', this passing of trauma from one generation to the next is "personified" in the form of an evil demon.
Despite all of these positive aspects, the story struggles to gain momentum, and the payoff isn't wholly satisfying. The film strives to reach the heights of André Øvredal's locked-room chiller 'The Autopsy of Jane Doe' or Liam Gavin's underrated mix of trauma and the occult 'A Dark Song' but ends up more like Josh Lobo's sluggish 'I Trapped the Devil'. The tension is dialled up from the very onset of the film, but only manages to sustain itself inconsistently throughout.
There are a few lulls where little is happening, which Thomas attempts to solve by ladling on too many 'The Conjuring'-isms: jump scares, booming music and iPhone spookiness. Not only is there no suspense to be wrung using these tricks, but it makes things feel padded. Even with its relatively short running time, this film is a slow burn - which isn't always a bad thing, as long as there is a substantial payoff. But the finale, set up in a cold open, lacks the emotional or horrific punch to cash in on the dread leading up to it. Instead of shocking or enlightening, it just sort of deflates with a low-key outcome that's kind of the minimum expectation. There are a lot of interesting concepts floated over the course of the film, but the whole thing feels too aimless, much like the lead character is regarding regarding how he should handle his predicament.
'The Vigil' explores a dark part of history via some fascinating mythology that is underutilised in modern cinema. It's a shame that an interesting concept for supernatural thriller falls victim to the influence of lazy modern horror filmmaking tropes and clichés.