“The Vigil” is an exercise in horror that effectively builds its character and narrative tensions in the first half only to tighten its grip for its lean remaining minutes.
Character actor on-the-rise Dave Davis stars as Yakov, a young man who lives in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community. A horrible event has caused him to step away from his disciplined spiritual life and seek therapy.
Meeting Sarah, an outgoing young woman played by Malky Goldman looks to be a step in the right direction for the introverted Yakov. A surprise encounter with an old friend places Yakov in a bizarre arrangement.
For $400, Yakov agrees to act as a Shomer, or vigil, providing night watch for a recently deceased corpse draped in a sheet. Over the course of the evening, Yakov’s seemingly easy task is complicated by an unseen presence that won’t stop taunting him.
Writer/director Keith Thomas, making his feature-length debut, has a strong eye for atmosphere. He creates a home that is bathed in dark colors, devoid of coziness and resembles a prison over the course of the film.
Similar in some ways to “1408,” as this haunted house tale keeps focus on Yakov and his initial cluelessness as to what he has gotten himself into. Early scenes of him listening to music and texting while he’s supposed to be performing a spiritual service are funny, until the welcome moments of comic relief evaporate completely.
While a supernatural thriller on the surface (and even something of an exorcism in the late going), its about the need for its protagonist to forgive himself for a tragedy he witnessed and to embrace the faith he turned away from.
Is “The Vigil” exploiting Jewish culture and religious beliefs, in the same way “The Possession” and “The Unholy” previously did? The faith community in “The Vigil” is portrayed with integrity and respect, making the events that transpire feel emotionally plausible.
I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the religious aspects of everything portrayed, but I believed in the characters and the community they co-exist in.
Davis is likable and relatable enough to carry the film, never overplaying Yakov’s inner torment or even his growing dread during his fateful assignment. The director’s skill at creating a thick shroud of menace and sinister possibilities with the setting are complimented by Davis’ decision to never turn to histrionics or over acting.
The late, great Lynn Cohen makes one of her final appearances here, playing Mrs. Litvak, the wife of the recently deceased. The veteran character actress was mesmerizing playing Golda Maier in “Munich” and is reliably great here.
Yakov’s final confrontation with the evil spirit, in which his shaky bravery and a single candle are all he possesses, is a riveting set piece. For a low-budget film, the production values are first rate and there’s lots of imagery that, like it or not, will stay with you long after it ends.
Less effective is the score, which clangs and grinds (Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” from last year mostly got away with this sort of soundtrack). The jump scares are good enough without the sudden blast of industrial noise.
The weakest sequence is a brief escape from the supernatural occurrences, in which Yakov manages to get outside. It doesn’t add much and lacks the sharpness of what came before it. Thankfully, this is a momentary detour and the film quickly gets back on track once Yakov returns to his duties as Shomer.
The concluding scenes are satisfying, as is the final shot, which suggests much without stating its exact meaning. Movies like this only work if it can place the audience in the same dread-inducing environment as the protagonist and make us share their rising fears and anxieties. In that way and others, “The Vigil” is very good and marks a promising debut.
No sequels, please.