Death is an uncomfortable process for us all. When someone around us suffers a loss, we try our best to help them find some comfort no matter how little we’re able to give during a difficult time. We rehash the good times and tell stories of the interesting, fun things we will always remember the departed for in an attempt at keeping the mood light. We never consider the deceased’s inner demons, the secrets they took with them to the grave. The Vigil wants us to realize that death doesn’t keep demons but suffering through life with guilt does.
Yakov (Dave Davis), a recently excised member of the Hasidic community, is still adjusting to his life outside of the only world he ever knew. Finding it hard to afford rent and medication, Yakov is desperate for a job. A friend from his old life, Shulem (Menashe Lustig), offers him the opportunity to sit “shomer,” or guardian, over a recently deceased man, granting Yakov a five-hundred-dollar payout to basically sit in a chair and read psalms for the one-night endeavor. It’s a simple setup we’ve seen many times before from House on Haunted Hill to episodes of Scooby-Doo, and it’s as good a motive as any: spend the night and get paid.
En route to the residence, Yakov enquires about his task as shomer and who he’ll be watching over. Shulem describes the recently deceased Mr. Litvak as a holocaust survivor who never left his home. While walking, Shulem broaches Yakov’s cultural abandonment in a way that leaves Yakov feeling uncomfortable, like Shulem is reaching out to pull him back into the community and the viewer can feel the uneasiness between the two characters.
As Shulem and Yakov approach the Litvak residence, the increasing weight of the evening that Yakov is about to experience is placed in the musical tones of Michael Yezerski’s score, simultaneously heightening the viewer’s pulse while ominously impressing dread and fear upon the viewer. Shulem’s introduction of Yakov to the bereaved Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) serves as the Horror equivalent of a slasher warning, attempting to persuade Shulem that Yakov “won’t work” as shomer and that he has to leave now. At that moment, noises from above them become concerning. Who else is in the home, and why are they trying to move furniture at this hour? Settling into the evening proves increasingly difficult to Yakov. Anytime he uses his phone to try speaking with his newly formed crush (Malky Goldman) or therapist (Fred Melamed), strange supernatural occurrences take place. And, if he’s granted a moment of sleep, he’s haunted by the memory of a tragic event from his past.
In one of the most terrifying sequences in the film—that I definitely jumped at—Yakov finds himself in the Litvak’s basement where a videotape is playing, telling us all about the parasitic Mazzik that feeds off the grief and suffering of others. The little pieces that director Keith Thomas left to be discovered from the start begin to reveal themselves and reward the viewer. The discomfort Yakov feels in speaking to his old friend about leaving, the once sinful act (by the standards of Yakov’s old culture) of texting with the girl he’s interested in, and using his phone instead of reciting psalms have all burdened Yakov since he arrived at the Litvak’s and have allowed the Mazzik the opportunity to choose a new host.
The Mazzik is a real demon steeped in Jewish folklore—yes, I looked it up because for some reason I have to know if these things exist—and for the most part it depends on what type of Mazzik you encounter. The demon can be like the one found in The Vigil or benevolent according to Occult-World, which also says the real demons to look out for in the culture are Dybbuks. You may remember the Dybbuk from the 2012 film The Possession, in which Jeffery Dean Morgan buys a haunted box for his daughter at a yard sale—reminding me never to buy weird items at yard sales— and tries to save his daughter from the demon within it. Occult World says that though Dybbuks may be more dangerous, Mazziks are more prevalent and that “Dybbuks are a crisis. Mazziks are a fact of life.” Regardless, I don’t want to meet either anytime soon.
Keith Thomas wants your suffering with The Vigil, and he’s willing to scare the hell out of you to get it. This is a good old-fashioned haunted house horror film that is well written enough to have a creative story about pain, loss, and forgiveness behind it while still managing to rack up its supply of jump scares. I’ll be honest, I loved this movie. It’s an immensely effective dread-inducing horror film that builds upon itself to a gratifying conclusion. Through simple atmosphere, music, camera pans, color palate, and practical effects The Vigil shows that you don’t need a big budget to create compelling horror. Thomas, who was writing novels before this, seems to have a great knack for knowing what he wants behind the camera, taking inspiration from films like The Exorcist and The Grudge. The Vigil is likely why he was awarded the director’s chair for the upcoming Firestarter remake starring Zac Efron, and I’m very excited to see what that will look like.
If you’re looking for a good scare, I recommend this movie to be watched in the dark. Turn the sound up a little louder than you’re comfortable with, and enjoy the ride.
The Vigil first premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in the United States in theaters and on VOD by IFC Midnight on February 26.