‘The Vigil:’ a Hasidic horror movie

February 19, 2021

A beautifully reimagined take on a person’s internal demons personified, “The Vigil” (2019), directed by Keith Thomas, manages to be touching, engaging and scary despite its low budget and well-worn premise. A Hasidic community, often only used as the setting for a documentary or harrowing TV drama, serves as a unique background for this demonic entity’s taunting of a young man spending the night in the community he had abandoned. 

“The Vigil” follows a very small story within a much larger world. Yakov (David Davis), a former Hasidic Jew, returns to the community he left not so long ago to make a few hundred dollars working as a shomer. In Orthodox communities, a shomer is someone who watches over and protects a dead body as its soul enters the afterlife. But the house Yakov must be shomer in ends up holding entities far more alarming than the corpse he watches over. 

The story of someone’s trauma and grief returning in a demonic or ghostly form is a common trope of horror, a famous example being “The Babadook.” “The Vigil,” while undoubtedly using this trope to its fullest extent, introduces a complexity into it. Yakov and the man whose body he watches over are haunted not only by their grief, but also by their moving on. Yakov blames himself for a family tragedy, and yet, he left his family when he abandoned his Hasidic lifestyle. The now-deceased Rubin (Ronald Cohen) blamed himself for the death of his wife during the Holocaust, but he moved to America to start a new family. These men could not fully live their new lives because they could not let go of the misfortune in their pasts. It is implied that the demon within Rubin’s house is not just the embodiment of a dead loved one, but of the lives the two men left behind. 

This movie shocked me, not so much in its plot, but in its effectiveness. It efficiently establishes characters, creates tension, develops a setting and it does this all while maintaining a truly unsettling atmosphere. The small scale in which this movie takes place allows for a very concentrated environment of scares. Once Yakov enters the house, we do not leave this spooky, tense atmosphere for the remainder of the movie. There are no lulls or pauses for exposition dumps, the movie just keeps amping up and destroying Yakov more and more. 

This makes the frightening moments of this movie all the more intense. The one time Yakov tries to escape the house after hours of being tormented, each step he takes outside of the house physically destroys him. His hands, arms and legs collapse below him. He becomes a practically immobile mass of pain as soon as he escapes this house of horror. The house is his only escape from pain and yet the toll it takes on his mental well-being may be nearly as damaging. The constant question apparent in any housebound horror—why not just leave?—is quickly answered in this wonderful plot-advancing scene. While this film succumbs to a couple of jumpscares here and there, for the most part, “The Vigil,” with the help of its strong cinematography and acting, creates a heart-pounding experience for its viewers.

The characters in this movie are fascinating. Of course, Hasidic Jews in this genre of movie are unique enough, but, outside of their religion and culture, the central characters all feel very fleshed-out and distinctive. Yakov is adjusting to his new secular lifestyle while trying to cope with PTSD. Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen), the widow of Rubin who occupies the house Yakov stays in, is a sickly old woman whose life has been a frightening battle against the demon that plagued her husband—a demon that ultimately drove her mad alongside her husband. Yakov’s debilitating mental illness, alongside Mrs. Litvak’s dementia and an evil force hellbent on trapping Yakov in the house, adds an unhinged nature to the film. When Yakov, partway through the night, decides to explore the house he is trapped in, he comes across an old tape in the Litvaks’ dingy basement. This tape shows Rubin rambling about demons with his wife sitting close behind, mouthing something. As the music swells Mrs. Litvak’s words become clearer and clearer until Yakov can finally make out her words, “Behind you, behind you.” Yakov slowly cranes his head back and out of the darkness two hands reach out to him, but he runs away before the viewer can make out the rest of the body. Rubin’s eerie rant, combined with the strain of trying to make out Mrs. Litvak’s words and the darkness that surrounds Yakov effectively sets this moment of terror.

The concept of a shomer is odd, creepy and unfamiliar to the average viewer. The vintage qualities apparent in any Hasidic home add a strange contrast to the bustling modern Brooklyn that surrounds it. The constant transitions between Yiddish and English spoken by the main characters create an out-of-the-know feeling for an English-speaking viewer. These very particular environments are rarely represented in fantastical stories and so serve to make this film distinctive and unfamiliar.

No matter the viewer’s knowledge of the lore or culture within Hasidic communities, “The Vigil” stands as a short and atmospheric adventure into the depths of a morbid tradition. With a strong cast, a straightforward story and an interesting background to piece together, this film will leave you feeling unsettled yet ultimately satisfied. 

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