The Vigil is a horror movie based around Jewish lore and demonology. For that reason, it has a very unique feel, despite utilizing the same general types of scares that many fright films rely on. Their meaning and intent is different here. They don't feel like basic attempts to jolt viewers so much as meaningful signposts about the path our unwitting hero finds himself stuck going down. Written and directed by Keith Thomas, the picture demonstrates how powerful it can be when you come at a genre with a fresh perspective.
Yakov (Dave Davis) has left his Hasidic community and has no desire to return. He is, however, in need of money, so when his former rabbi tracks him down with an offer for what should be a quick job, he reluctantly accepts it. Yakov is hired to be a “shomer,” sitting with the body of a deceased member of the community overnight. He's taken to the home, where the late gentleman's elderly wife, Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen), is in the advanced stages of dementia. She quickly retreats upstairs, leaving Yakov alone in the living room with the corpse.
He soon begins having strange visions, including flashbacks to a traumatic event from his past. Yakov calls his psychiatrist, Dr. Kohlberg (Fred Melamud), for advice. That proves not entirely helpful. The longer the night goes on, the more these visions torture him. After discovering a videotape the late Mr. Litvak made, Yakov comes to believe that a demon is tormenting him – one whose head is on backwards, forcing him to always be looking in the past.
That last element is what really makes The Vigil gripping storywise. Just like that demon, Yakov is forced to look backward. The trauma he once experienced keeps looming in his thoughts, causing him to feel remorse, regret, and a desire to turn back time that can never be fulfilled. It's almost as though the demon senses they have something in common, making Yakov an easy target. Watching how this plays out in a hallucinatory manner gives the movie an unending sense of tension.
Davis is very good in the lead role. The way he plays Yakov's reactions feel genuine. In other words, we believe that the character is being impacted by an unseen entity that can mess with his mind. I don't want to give away any of the specific scares The Vigil offers, except to say it frequently leads you down one road, only to reveal that what you think you're seeing isn't quite what it seems, or has some additional factor you weren't initially aware of.
About eight or nine years ago, there was another horror movie to make use of Jewish lore. The Possession had some real style, but fell apart in the telling of the story. The Vigil is sharp enough to make sure its plot builds to a finale both meaningful and spooky. Using religious beliefs and traditions provides it with flavor, yet also with substance. This is a film for people who like horror with a goal beyond just being scary.
out of four
The Vigil is rated PG-13 for terror, some disturbing/violent images, thematic elements and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes.