This review is brought to you in partnership with our friends at Vertigo Releasing
Catholicism and Christianity have long held court in the supernatural horror reflected in contemporary movies. From The Exorcist to The Omen and The Conjuring. This has, in turn, left Judaism and other religious beliefs in the dark. The symbolism and strength of many ghost stories held within the Western imagery of the cross and the clerical collar. Therefore, ‘The Vigil’ starts from an interesting premise. As writer/director Keith Thomas takes the classic supernatural movie template and embeds it within Jewish religious beliefs. The streets of Brooklyn’s Borough Park glowing with the omnipresent force of a spirit writhing to be free.
The Vigil is rooted in the Jewish tradition of a person sitting with the body of a recently deceased community member before burial. This person is called a ‘shomer’; the ritual they undertake involving reading from the ‘Tehillim’ until the person is ready for burial; the act helping to calm the spirit in its final transition from the body.
Yakov (Dave Davis) has separated from the Orthodox Jewish community following a personal tragedy; his life a mix of post-traumatic stress and financial pressure as he slowly rebuilds his security. However, following a group support meeting of people in a similar position to himself. Yakov finds himself asked to conduct a Vigil for a recently departed local man. His former Rabbi insisting that this is ‘one-off’ request due to the previous shomer disappearing into the night. The corpse in question laying covering in a shroud in the living room of an old house. The body that of a Holocaust survivor who lived an isolated life in Borough Park; his elderly wife still residing in the house but suffering from dementia.
Yakov’s initial reaction is a flat rejection of the proposal; however, when money is offered for him to complete the task, Yakov reluctantly agrees. Leading to a night of isolation, fear, and terror as he faces his own demons and a long-hidden ancient evil.
Keith Thomas delivers a strong debut film, as ‘The Vigil’ slowly builds tension from the first scene to the last. The dimly glowing lights of Borough Park echoing the eerie silence of Washington DC in ‘The Exorcist.’ While the audience plunges into a slow burn supernatural terror that eats away at the boundaries between what is real and imagined. However, like many films within the genre, The Vigil opts to move beyond the realms of a ghost story. And by doing this weakens its lasting power and effect. The real terror housed within the first half of the film, as Yakov sits isolated with only a corpse for company. The darkness of the room, softly glowing lamps, and shrouded body offering some genuinely stunning jumps.
Despite ending on a slightly weaker third act, there much to admire in The Vigil. From the viewer never fully seeing the darkness at play, to Davis’ beautiful reflection of the vulnerability and inner pain of Yakov. And when these attributes converge with the luscious dark cinematography of Zach Kuperstein, The Vigil becomes a truly heart-stopping journey into hidden terror. The strange reflections, distant voices, and slowly moving shadows eating away at the security of the audience. And while it may not be able to keep this tension flowing throughout, The Vigil is undoubtedly something new and terrifying in horror.
Director: Keith Thomas