Stale Popcorn
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The Fear of What We Can’t Forget: A Review of “The Vigil”

The Vigil / IFC Midnight

A universal truth for the horror genre is mankind’s undisputed fear of the unknown. We don’t know what lies in the shadows. Dating back to the stone age, we don’t know what’s lying in wait for us, watching us while we sleep, when we let our guard down, and even though we don’t necessarily have to worry about apex predators as much as we used to, we still can’t bear to turn on the lights in the middle of the night, when there’s some kind of shadowy figure in the corner, for fear of seeing the true face of the thing waiting to devour us.

But sometimes that thing lurking in the corner has made us all too aware of its presence and identity. Sometimes the fear we have nestled in our hearts is of something we can’t unknow, something we’re desperate to forget, but will never be able to. The haunting reminder of failure in any capacity, of past sins that follow us wherever we go. Religion does its best to help convince us we’re free of those sins, but such feeble promises can only go so far when shame has its teeth in your neck like a vampire that won’t let go. Keith Thomas’ The Vigil takes that idea and runs with it, mixing in Jewish religious myth and legend to create one of the rawest and terrifying horror films about grief and trauma since recent hits like Relic and Hereditary.

Yakov Ronen (in a wonderful performance from Dave Davis) is a young Jewish man, aimless and alone in the middle of a Hasidic community in Borough Park, New York City. Even when surrounded by friends or family, Ronen is a solitary raft drifting through a ghostly sea. There’s a haunted pain in his eyes that lets us know right away that there’s something following him, no matter how fast he runs. Yakov is trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and the Orthodox faith he grew up with. But no matter how many support group meetings he attends in order to regain control of his own life, his religion is still waiting for him on the sidewalk when he walks out of the apartment building. On the night we meet Yakov, the ghost of his religion has taken the form of his old Rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) offering a proposition.

Reb Shulem wants Yakov to return to his roots, acting as a Shomer for the night. A Shomer, the opening titles of The Vigil informs us, is a key position in the tradition of Shemira, holding vigil over the body of a deceased member of the community from the moment of death until the body can be taken away for burial. When there are no family or friends to watch over the body, a Shomer is called in to do the job. Both Shulem and Yakov are in a tight situation. Shulem’s original Shomer for an old shut-in named Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen) has left at the last minute under mysterious circumstances. Yakov is desperate for money, jobless, and barely making enough money for his upcoming rent. After negotiating as much money as he can out of the job, Yakov agrees to spend the night in the weathered old apartment, reading Psalms over the corpse of Mr. Litvak, while his dementia-addled widow (Lynn Cohen) supposedly sleeps upstairs. But the home is old, filled with melancholic memories, and something upstairs is making the floorboards creak, and the longer Yakov stays in the apartment, the more he realizes he’s not as alone as he thinks.

What follows is a tightly wound, masterfully paced, nail-biting exercise in increasing dread, as Keith Thomas and crew use every tool at their disposal to create a cinematic experience of pure, uncut terror. From the very start, first-time feature director Thomas, shows his command of the film from the opening shot, to the last, keeping a theme of out-of-focus visuals to represent that which follows us wherever we go. Thomas and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein’s camera is like a ghost, watching Yakov from afar, drifting down cramped hallways and through the shadows, and walls, of the haunted apartment. While Michael Yezerski’s score gets under our skin with a mixture of traditional and modern style, the apartment seems to grow more and more claustrophobic by the second. The Vigil wastes nothing and uses everything to its cinematic advantage: minimalist yet practical creature effects, distant bumps, and creaks that echo through your eardrums, moving figures in and out of focus, lens flares, and even one of the most uncinematic things in the world, a text message conversation, to recreate that feeling that something is with you in a house where as far as you know, you’re supposed to be the only one.

The Vigil isn’t just technically sound. It keeps good on its promise made with its premise and creates an incredible epic of a story that interweaves the past and the present, mythology, Jewish demonology, and the “real” world, that is centered on the heart and its obvious love and care for its damaged and haunted characters. An audience’s connection to its main character is essential for any story, but especially one in the horror genre. Our fear is only escalated by our worry for Yakov’s life and his sanity, and the more he learns about the demon haunting the Litvak home, the less likely it seems he’ll be able to keep either.

The Vigil is a jaw-dropping, nerve-shattering, teeth-chattering experience. One of the best recent horror films of the last few years, one of the scariest movies I’ve watched in a while, and will certainly be an early runner for my top ten list at the end of the year. I can write as many words as possible and still feel like I haven’t said enough about what I loved in this film, but without spoiling anything, I’ll say that one of its true keys to success also lies in its ability to never forget hope, the true key to surviving the night when faced with your past’s trauma.

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Quentin Norris

Quentin Norris

Writer, filmmaker, and comedy performer living in Winston-Salem NC. I write fantasy, horror, flash fiction, and film/television/music reviews.