Just when Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) thought he was out of the Orthodox Judaism lifestyle, the old ways find a way to reel him back in. Unfortunately, this entails crossing paths with an ancient demon who summons more than just frights: he’s the harbinger of past trauma terror. I have to say, Judaism is never the go-to religion for horror, so kudos to Keith Thomas for centering his feature debut, The Vigil, around subject matter that rarely crosses genre lines. While some moments play out more experimental than cinematically confident, Thomas announces himself as a frightening new voice in a playground that many dabble in, but few succeed.
Having survived an anti-Semitic attack that ended in tragedy, Yakov decides to denounce his faith and assimilate with society. It turns out there are many, for whatever reason, who decide to leave the Orthodox way of life. However, integrating into the independent world with no community to fall back on — financially or spiritually — requires therapy to make the transition less overwhelming. Yakov’s fateful evening begins with a group meeting of reformed Jews, who go around and share current hardships and blessings. At the end of the gathering, Yakov is approached by fellow reformist Sarah (Malky Goldman), who expresses interest in taking their relationship further than weekly conventions. She types in her number into his phone, hoping they can grab tea at some point soon.
Yakov is taken aback, as he’s never had a woman so freely ask to date him. Arranged intimacy and romance are often the norms in his culture, so it’s going to take some getting used to this newfound freedom. Dealing with emotional separation from a traumatic upbringing is a theme worth delving into, but here it’s used as a character setup for the coming nightmare. Thomas wastes no time undermining Yakov’s progress, thwarting his road to a new identity by calling in one last favor from the past.
An old friend, Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), approaches Yakov after his meeting, begging him to act as “shomer” for the night until the coroner can pick up the deceased’s body. In Jewish law, “shomer” is a title that describes any entrusted individual to watch over someone or their belongings for a period of time, typically without pay. The latter isn’t going to fly with Yakov, who negotiates a pay of $400 for the five or so hours he’s requested to keep vigil. The dead man and his living wife (Lynn Cohen), the Litvaks, reside in a quaint townhouse in Brooklyn nearby.
The last place you’d expect demons to lurk is in this modest neighborhood, but it just so happens that the monster haunting Mr. Litvak has been attached to him since his time in Nazi Germany. A Holocaust survivor and former concentration camp prisoner, Mr. Litvak was forced by gunpoint to murder his fellow Jews. Refusing would result in him and his loved ones suffering the same cruel fate. After the execution under duress is complete, a monster emerges from the forest and kills all but the paralyzed-with-fear Litvak. It’s only until death arrives that Litvak can shed this demon and pass him onto another innocent victim: Yakov Ronen.
Even though she screams at Yakov to leave when they first meet, dreamy madness appears to have overtaken Mrs. Litvak. She departs back upstairs while the young shomer drifts to observational relaxation in a giant lounge chair — but not for long. He’s startled awake by the crackle and pop of his bones disjointing, not to mention movement under the sheet covering Mr. Litvak’s corpse. When Yakov eventually does reencounter the creepy widow, she warns him of the monster who burdened her late husband: the Mazzik, a demonic creature of popular Jewish lore, translated from the Talmud text as “those who harm.” Welp, you can say that again!
The Mazzik is the standout aspect of Thomas’s debut, a human-monster hybrid whose partial visibility only adds to his scare factor. The creature is described as having a twisted head, so he’s never quite looking at you directly, yet you always know you’re in his line of sight if he’s close. The Mazzik conjures a mystical force field that keeps Yakov trapped; the only means of escape is confronting the traumatic manifestation head-on.
Much of The Vigil’s success is how it relies on squeamish horror to incite fear rather than go the uninspired route of jump scaring. Furthermore, the weight of atmospheric creepiness established is its own form of oppression, as every frame appears like it’s ready to swallow Yakov whole. Although it should have leaned further into its Jewish lore origins, The Vigil proves that the horror genre doesn’t need to be constrained by convention in capable directorial hands. The most frightening myths that come to life are often the least known.