The Vigil (2019)

FEBRUARY 21, 2021


One thing that is difficult for me (and I'm sure others) to remember when watching anything involving Catholic customs is that people who are part of another religion (or abstain from the idea entirely) might not understand the significance of this or that thing. The easiest example coming to mind is probably Dracula 2000, explaining that the title character was actually Judas Iscariot. For me, a good Catholic boy who had only recently stopped going to church every weekend after 20 years of following the practice, this needed no explanation, but someone raised without this story being recited to them a couple times a year might be like "Wait, who?" So with that in mind, I appreciate when a movie like The Vigil comes along to remind me how it feels to be completely unfamiliar with the customs and "laws" of other beliefs.

Luckily, the movie gives us enough explanation to get the basics (a Fangoria article about the film actually gave more context than necessary). The story hinges on the Jewish concept of the shemira, in which a body must be watched from the time of death until it buried. The watcher, a shomer, is supposed to read prayers of comfort for both the family of the deceased as well as the person's spirit, who may need the prayers to help them understand what has happened. It's actually kind of a lovely idea! No one does that for us Catholics, that's for sure. We just have a wake the day before we're buried, where people come nod at our corpse, shake hands and extend condolences to whoever is near the coffin*, and then make small talk nearby.

Anyway, being a horror movie, you might assume this is about creepy things happening during a shemira, and you'd be correct. Our hero is Yakov (Dave Davis), a man who has recently abandoned his Orthodox ways and even goes to a support group where he discusses the loss/change in his life with others who have done the same. However, his old Rabbi (I think? I apologize if I get the terms mixed up) waits outside the meeting and asks him to be shomer for a man named Litvak, who recently died and is set to be taken by the mortuary in the morning. Luckily for Yakov, the body just needs a watcher for the final six hours; his wife has been doing it, but suffers from dementia and needs to rest. However, the Rabbi has an ulterior motive, in that he hopes Yakov will rejoin their community and that this will give him the push he needs. Yakov doesn't really want to do this, for obvious reasons (he doesn't even know the family) but the man offers to pay him a few hundred bucks that he desperately needs as he is out of a job and rent is due. So he agrees, obviously. Otherwise there's no movie.

It doesn't take long for the odd things to start happening, and writer/director Keith Thomas ramps up the instensity at a fairly gradual pace. At first it's just lights flickering and things like that; he stages a great bit where a spider (?) scurries under the chair that Yakov is sitting in, prompting him to spend a few seconds nervously checking his clothes and trying to look behind his back, a feeling I believe all humans can identify with. Eventually he's seeing things and getting video texts of someone watching him during a brief period where he dozed off (which he is not supposed to do, if I'm understanding), and by the end we're into full surreal territory, with figures stretching out of the walls without actually breaking through (think Freddy coming out of Nancy's bedroom wall). Thomas also get a lot of mileage with a simple cracking sound that plays when the entity keeps mangling Yakov's hand; remember the sound of Mr. Glass' bones breaking when he fell down the subway stairs in Unbreakable? Think that but if it popped up several times in the film and without any indication to the audience that it was about to happen. Gah!

Along the way we also learn why Yakov has abandoned his faith, and it's not only heartbreaking, but also fairly justified in a way you don't often see in relgious themed horror (or even drama for that matter). It's not the usual "Someone I love died so how can there be a God?" kind of thing, but (vague spoiler) something happened specifically because of how Yakov looked as a Jewish man, attracting attention from some bullies that probably wouldn't have given him a second look otherwise. Thomas smartly keeps the details under wraps for a while, letting us just sympathize with Yakov as a young man trying to find his place in the world and scaring us a few times before letting us know exactly why he is seeking this huge change and what it has to do with his religion.

Thomas also gives us what is an increasingly common and welcome sight in modern films: letting us "see" someone's inner thoughts thanks to writing/rewriting text messages. It used to be we'd get those clunky scenes of someone practicing a phone call (and we still do; The Way Back had a good one just last year) but this is a tool they can use to get the same kind of brainstorming out but much quicker. Yakov has attracted the attention of one of the women in his group and she is texting him for the first time while he watches the body, so we not only see him Googling "how to talk to women" (heh, poor sod) but also struggling with basic small talk. When he replies "Hey" to her "hi!" and then pauses over whether to add a period, it's wonderful. In a second of screentime we get what might have been a page's worth of exposition about how he was nervous and didn't want to blow it.

Some of that shorthand doesn't always help the movie, though. There are a pair of flashbacks to a tragedy in Mr Litvak's past (tied into why there's an entity haunting him in death) and they really could have been fleshed out a bit, due to their significance to the story. The first occurs right at the top of the story and the other is near the end, so even though it's not a long film you might have even forgotten about the earlier appearance by the time the followup comes along, so that coupled with the vagueness of their context makes it feel underdeveloped. I also wasn't quite sure how Yakov got back inside the house after falling outside; the wife (familiar character actor Lynn Cohen, who has since passed away) bandages his wounds but she certainly couldn't have gotten him inside? With the number of surreal/hallucinatory moments in the film it's possible he never actually left at all, but his wounds are consistent with the fall he took, so a little clarification here would have been good.

Overall, it's an effective little chiller, nothing less or more. I am happy that Jewish horror fans can get a film of their own (one without a golem no less!) and found Yakov to be a solid lead, but I almost got the sense that Thomas had a banger of a setup but never quite figured out how to end it. It feels a bit padded at times too, which again suggests that the knockout premise was enough to get a greenlight without a fully fleshed out script (or perhaps budgetary restrictions forced them to gut parts of it). At its best (the first half) it gives the same kind of proper spooky vibes as The Autopsy of Jane Doe, with a dash of the (already forgotten) Possession of Hannah Grace; I'm a sucker for the "one night on the job" kind of genre tales and it more or less checks those boxes with the added Jewish element giving it some flavor. Just wish it had a little bit more so I could elevate it to "must see".

What say you?

*I will never forget at my dad's wake when someone who knew him from basketball (he was a volunteer ref and announcer for the local teams) came up to the coffin, said his silent prayer, and then proceeded to tell some of my father's old coworkers how sorry he was for their loss, while ignoring my mother and I standing right next to them. Really need a guest list for these things to keep out the randoms who might inadvertently make you burst out laughing.


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