My notes on The Vigil (2019), which opens in the UK July 17.
Most Jewish-themed horror movies offer golems or dybbuks; this deals with the mazik, a brand of demon from Jewish lore (admittedly related to the dybbuk) roughly equivalent to the elemental that latches onto Ian Carmichael in From Beyond the Grave. As much character study as spookshow, it leaves protagonist Yakov (Dave Davis delivering a bravura performance) solo onscreen for long periods of time, with only his smartphone (which, crucially, he doesn’t quite know how to use) and a possible demon for company. Set in Brooklyn, the film opens with Yakov uneasy in a self-help group for people who have made tentative steps outside an enclosed Orthodox community. It turns out that Yakov has ditched the hat and cut his sidelocks after a traumatic encounter with anti-semites that has added to his personal (and racial) burden of guilt in such a way as to evoke a Nazi atrocity teased in a brief prologue.
Writer-director Keith Thomas does well by conveying Yakov’s between-worlds uneasiness – he has to google ‘how to talk to women’ after someone in the group () asks him out for coffee – which opens him to dangers in the wider world but also makes him prey to a tempting offer that requires a semi-return to his roots. Lurking outside the group, which is run by a shrink (Fred Melamed), is Yakov’s former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), who offers the cash-strapped young man money to be shomer, spending a night watching over the body of recently-deceased Holocaust survivor Mr Litvak (Ronald Cohen), whose wife (Lynn Cohen) suffers from dementia and can’t really help.
A nicely-concealed needle in the plot is our growing realisation that Reb Shulem might be more aware of the situation in the Litvak home than he lets on, and extending this opportunity to the mild-mannered apostate might be as vindictive as it proves strangely instructive. Over the course of the night, Yakov uncovers some of the backstory – and gets pestered by a malicious spirit in search of a new host, and eventually tools up with spiritual armour (tefillin – a black cube fixed to the forehead – and a leather strap wound around the forearm) less familiar in the movies than the Fr Merrin purple scarf and holy water gear – but the whispers and jump-scares never quite connect as strongly as the more grounded drama. Often, I sit through something like I, Daniel Blake or God’s Own Country and wish a werewolf would show up … here I wondered whether the film wouldn’t have been stronger with the supernatural element stripped out or at least downplayed.
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