In the middle of the night, you can’t run from your thoughts. You might play on your phone. You might distract yourself for a bit. But in the dark of these hours, the world is so quiet you can hear every creak. The dark breathes with you. The dark knows you and leads you to look back on the past that haunts you. This experience manifests a monster in The Vigil, a sophisticated psychological thriller rich with Jewish tradition.
Written and directed by Keith Thomas, The Vigil follows a man who has lost his faith and must confront his past, all in one fateful night in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood. It all begins when Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) takes a paid gig to serve as shomer to a recently deceased local. He is supposed to sit in vigil through the night with the body, reading psalms and protecting against unseen evil. But a personal tragedy has shattered Yakov’s connection to his community and his faith. So, he plans to play on his phone, nap, or maybe text the cute girl who flirted with him earlier. However, the dark of the night will not let him rest, nor will the demon that stalks in its shadows.
In the first act, Thomas solemnly nods to the long tradition of Christianity-inspired demon horror with a visual allusion to The Exorcist. In an exterior shot, a hatted rabbi’s silhouette is stark against the glow of the house where the body and a mazik lie. From there, Thomas employs spooky standards like a dark figure silent yet threatening in a corner, the creaking of a house that should be still, the twitch of the corpse beneath the sheet, and jump scares involving long, pale hands that snatch in fury. Then, this ancient demon shows some new tricks, turning Yakov’s phone into another source for scares, from which strange voices and disturbing videos can surface.
Suspense is wrung from each of these setups, amid a murky haze of night that makes everything spookier. Atop all this, Thomas knits in the real-life horrors of anti-Semitism and generational trauma. This mazik is a parasitic demon whose head twists backwards, always looking at the past, anchoring its victim to the worst moment of their life. As Yakov sits in vigil over its prey, he realizes the mazik is looking to make him its next meal. To fight this demon, he must not only look to his Orthodox faith but also the pain from which he runs. Here, Thomas folds in a psychological element that might be The Vigil’s most masterful stroke.
There’s a moment in most monster-in-the-house plot lines where you might wonder: Why not just leave? Whether it’s a beast, a slasher, a ghost or a demon, “get out” seems the obvious answer. For Yakov, it’s not so simple. When he first begins to see these sinister signs, he doesn’t flee to preserve the sanctity of the vigil or because of the paycheck. He stays because he thinks it’s all in his head. He pops an Ativan and makes an emergency call to his therapist, admitting he’s hallucinating again. Storywise, this ground him in peril. Drama wise, it means even if he could leave this house, the hell would come with him. There is no escape from what’s in your head.
Often in psychological thrillers, the filmmaker tips their hand about whether it’s madness or supernatural that is causing the chaos in the hero’s life. Thomas gives us no easy out. Yakov has mental health struggles. Yet, the dead man and his frail widow (Lynn Cohen) believed deeply in the demon. Evidence is made for either case, and The Vigil does not need you to choose. Either way, the terror here is real, ravenous, and potentially inescapable.
The Vigil is a sophisticated and scary film, smartly executed. Thomas invites us into an intimate scenario, that soon feels suffocating in a thrilling, mind-bending way. Davis grounds the film with a performance that begins stoic but gives way to layers of anxiety, fear, grief, regret, and fortitude. A color palette of teals and oranges creates a vivid world of isolation and torment. With a creeping, creepy pace, Thomas guides us confidentially, mercilessly, through this nightmare from which there is no waking. He knows the effect a flickering light or a long, dark hallway has on us. So, he makes our pulse a plaything, working toward a finale that is frightening, poignant, and maybe perfect.
In short, don’t sleep on The Vigil.
And bonus goodies for horror lovers, he’ll soon be bringing his talent for terror to the remake of Stephen King’s Firestarter.
The Vigil opens in select theaters, on digital,
and VOD on February 26.
Header Image Source: IFC Midnight