Jewish lore inspires chilling but less-than-original horror film 'The Vigil'

  • Yakov (Dave Davis) takes a job as a "shomer," someone who keeps watch over a body, in the Jewish horror tale "The Vigil."

    Yakov (Dave Davis) takes a job as a "shomer," someone who keeps watch over a body, in the Jewish horror tale "The Vigil." Courtesy of IFC Films

  • When lights go out in the Jewish horror tale "The Vigil," Yakov (Dave Davis) brings out his trusty phone to help see the unseeable.

    When lights go out in the Jewish horror tale "The Vigil," Yakov (Dave Davis) brings out his trusty phone to help see the unseeable. Courtesy of IFC Films

 
 
Posted2/25/2021 6:00 AM

"The Vigil" -- ★ ★

Keith Thomas' atmospherically chilling, jump-scarey horror tale "The Vigil" eventually arrives at a narrative crossroads where it can go one of two ways:

 

It can springboard off its masterly crafted, frightfully dark opening and do for Judaism what "The Exorcist" did for Catholicism.

Or it can merely continue its easy jump-scares, weird noises and nerve-jangling music while inching toward a slightly confusing, pedestrian finale that will not likely inspire believers to flock to the safety of their houses of worship, as happened with "The Exorcist."

"The Vigil" opts for the latter as it presents a supernatural tale "steeped in ancient Jewish lore and demonology," according to a press release.

In Brooklyn's Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood, a young man named Yakov (Dave Davis) takes a job as a "shomer," someone who watches over the body of a community member before burial.

Yakov has been picking up the pieces of his fractured life. He suffers from guilt over the death of his younger brother. And he has recently, traumatically, left his insular religious order.

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He readily accepts $500 to watch over the corpse of Ruben Litvak (Ronald Cohen), a reclusive Holocaust survivor. His wife (Lynn Cohen) still lives in their home, but reportedly suffers from dementia.

"I'm here to protect and comfort your husband's soul," Yakov explains to her.

"Protect it?" Mrs. Litvak replies. "From what?"

We find out soon enough after Yakov experiences mysterious sounds emanating from upstairs when nobody should be there.

Yakov sees a black figure on the kitchen floor, and it disappears when the lights turn on.

"I'm losing my mind!" he laments to nobody.

Conveniently, the late Mr. Litvak did some expositional heavy lifting by recording an old VHS tape explaining how he picked up a demon at Buchenwald, and how it thrived on his painful memories for decades. Now that Litvak has died, the demonic presence will look for another "broken person" to bug.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Guess who?

"The Vigil" oozes tension and suspense during its first act, with Davis' controlled performance treading a fine line between restrained vulnerability and Jack Nicholson-grade emoting while trapped in the Litvak's claustrophobic home, bathed in an eerie green tinge from a single tungsten light in the kitchen.

Zach Kuperstein's disquieting camera work plays well with those mysterious noises and Michael Yezerski's tormented, tortured music (featuring choppy, disorienting segments presumably played backward).

All these elements set us up to anticipate a horrifying film experience that never quite gels.

Light bulbs flicker and die.

People and claws pop out of nowhere.

Phone calls assumed to be from trusted friends turn out to be something else.

Even if Thomas -- directing from his own screenplay -- freshens these cliches, we've still seen them before.

Would "The Vigil" have been a better movie had it delved more into its "ancient Jewish lore" and not merely used it as a premise for a standard-issue, PG-13-rated scary tale?

Maybe.

But it still wouldn't be in the same league with the 1915 silent Jewish horror classic "The Golem," about a clay statue brought to life to save the Jews from persecution.

• • •

Starring: Dave Davis, Lynn Cohen

Directed by: Keith Thomas

Other: An IFC Films release. In theaters and on demand. Rated PG-13 for language, violence. 90 minutes

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