THE VIGIL movie poster | ©2021 IFC Midnight

THE VIGIL movie poster | ©2021 IFC Midnight

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Lynn Cohen, Fred Melamed, Ronald Cohen
Writer: Keith Thomas
Director: Keith Thomas
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Release Date: February 26, 2021

THE VIGIL, originally released theatrically in February, is now available on Hulu. Most religious horror films are based in Catholicism, Christianity, paganism, or Satanism. THE VIGIL is therefore comparatively uncommon, as it centers around Orthodox Judaism.

Specifically, THE VIGIL focuses on the real-world tradition of having a Shomer, or watchman, sit with the corpse of a newly deceased person. The Shomer recites prayers intended to comfort the deceased’s soul and ward off evil (this is explained in a title card at the start of the film).

After an enigmatic, unsettling opening, we are introduced to six people talking around a table in the apartment of Dr. Kohlberg (Fred Melamed). We realize this is a support session for people trying to integrate into the secular world after leaving in insular Orthodox Jewish community in New York.

Among the group is Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), a young man still learning how to use his cell phone and deal with flirtation from fellow group member Sarah (Malky Goldman). He’s struggling with his rent, looking for work, and on medication for issues we’ll learn more about.

Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), Yacov’s former rabbi, is waiting outside the building. Dr. Kohlberg is prepared to chase him away, but Reb Shulem has an offer of work for Yacov. Can he come and act as Shomer for a member of Reb Shulem’s congregation until morning, when the body can be taken to the mortuary?

Yacov doesn’t want to be drawn back into his old life, but for $400, he figures he can stand to do it for five hours. He has acted as a Shomer before and knows the ritual. But what happened to whoever was supposed to do the job? Reb Shulem explains that the other man became “afraid” and left.

The dead man is Rubin Litvak, a Holocaust survivor who lost his family in WWII, but remarried in America. Litvak is estranged from his children. His widow (Lynn Cohen), we are told, has advanced Alzheimer’s. She is clear on not wanting Yacov in her home, but he and the rabbi attribute this to her dementia.

The rabbi leaves, and Yacov settles in for the night. And what a night it is.

Director/writer Keith Thomas creates a wonderful sense of dark, claustrophobic environment. He also lets characters move fluidly between English and (subtitled) Yiddish, which gives added credibility to the world of THE VIGIL.

The shadowy Litvak home is prime real estate for things going bump in the night. It feels cluttered, yet broken, and there are pools of shadow, even when all the lights are on.

Thomas has a wonderful central figure in Davis, who endows Yacov with a natural warmth and many different degrees of alarmed reaction.

Where THE VIGIL stumbles a bit is in having a major exposition dump about halfway through. While this clarifies what Yacov is up against, and why, it’s way too convenient and takes some of the wind out of what follows. (It also makes us wonder how the rabbi apparently doesn’t know.) Still, we are given a profound, tragic reason for why Litvak was so susceptible, and why Yacov is especially at risk now.

Filmmaker Thomas gives us a set-up so intriguing that we wouldn’t mind seeing more of it, even without the horror element. As faith-based, folklore fear films go, THE VIGIL is well worth a visit.

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