24th Jul2020

‘The Vigil’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Dave Davis, Fred Melamed, Ronald Cohen, Lynn Cohen, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman | Written and Directed by Keith Thomas

The debut feature from writer-director Keith Thomas, engaging and atmospheric horror The Vigil centres on Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), a young man who has recently joined a self-help group for Jews struggling to adjust after leaving a tight-knit Orthodox community. In addition to processing a deeply traumatic event, Yakov is also struggling financially, so when his former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) offers him $400 to sit as shomer and watch over the body of a recently deceased Holocaust survivor (Ronald Cohen), he is more or less forced to accept.

As The Vigil explains up front with captions, being a shomer means protecting the recently deceased person from evil spirits or demons. Unfortunately, Mr Litvak had spent most of his life being haunted by a Mazzik (similar to a Dybbuk), so Yakov finds he has his work cut out for him as the malicious demon attempts to find a new host. The only other person in the house is Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen), whose severe dementia occasionally yields either useful advice or a timely warning.

In what could very well prove a breakthrough performance, Davis is terrific as Yakov, engaging the audience’s sympathy with a heartfelt turn that shows just how vulnerable and lost the young man is after his own recent tragedy. There’s also strong support from Lynn Cohen (who’s also good for a jump scare or two), while Lustig is effective as the rabbi who may know more than he’s letting on.

Thomas’ direction is impressive throughout, especially when it comes to establishing a deeply creepy atmosphere. The lighting is particularly creative, with Zach Kuperstein’s camerawork expertly ratcheting up the tension by forcing you to peer into darkness or scan held images for hints of movement.

On top of that, Thomas’ script finds clever ways around the usual why-doesn’t-he-just-leave problem, first by establishing via a phone call to his therapist that Yakov had already been seeing and hearing things anyway (so the entire film can be read as his mental breakdown) and second by…well, that bit is too good to spoil here, but it gives the film one of its strongest horror scenes.

In addition to deploying some decent jump scares, Thomas pulls off a wide variety of creepy moments, the best of which find inventive uses for a mobile phone. (It’s a nice touch that Yakov is already daunted by his phone as he’s only just got one for the first time). Thomas’ depiction of the Mazzik itself is equally impressive, most notably in the withholding of the demon’s face until the crucial moment.

Ultimately, The Vigil does an excellent job of dovetailing the horror elements with a gripping character portrait of a man undergoing a dark night of the soul. As such, this is an accomplished debut from Thomas and it will be fascinating to see what he does next.

**** 4/5

The Vigil is released in the UK on July 31st.

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