TIFF Review: THE VIGIL

With so many scary movies unleashed into the world, it’s pretty easy to slot each into a specific category; a slasher, a ghost story, a possession flick.  THE VIGIL might fit comfortably into the mold of an overnight demon haunt, but it has one key difference; it’s Jewish.  And it isn’t just Jewish, it’s Yiddish.

Breaking away from the typical Christian demon haunts we are used to seeing from The Exorcist to The Conjuring, THE VIGIL tells the story of Yakov (Dave Davis), a former Hasidic Jew who has stepped out of his community, the Brooklyn Hasidic community of Borough Park.  During his period of adjustment, he is asked to come back to spend the night as a Shomer. Yakov has recently joined the “secular world,” and is having difficulty adjusting to traditions and customs, as well as finding ways to support himself.  Needing the money, he agrees to act as Shomer, a job often done by family members or by paid professionals, where one watches over the body of a deceased person until they can be buried. A Shomer is meant to accompany the soul and guard it until the body can be laid to rest.  After being told the last Shomer fled from fear, Yakov agrees to watch over the body of Mr. Litvak until dawn, to stand vigil. 

Yakov spends the night in the deceased’s house, along with the aging and odd Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen), but soon suspects they might not be alone. They’re sharing the space with a spook, the mazik, a Jewish demon who has latched onto Mr. Litvak.

On the surface, this film is about a struggling young man taxed with protecting himself and the soul of the dead from a demon, learning to fight the demons, both literal and figurative.  But scratch just a little bit off the surface, and this is a story about guilt, inherited and intergenerational trauma, the sense of religious obligation, and finding the pure faith within oneself to unleash the outward most strength.  

It’s difficult to dive into the impact of this movie without touching on the impact of seeing a Jewish horror film at TIFF’s Midnight Madness.  Walking into the opening screening of this film, I was filing into a theater with fellow Jews such that it felt like entering a synagogue. But this wasn’t the traditional religious display. We were going to see a scary movie.  Representation matters. This was the first of many moments in the evening ahead where I would fully be able to live that sentiment.

Yakov isn’t just haunted by a physical presence. He is haunted by memories.  The mazik, one of the Jewish Sheydim, or demons, feeds on pain and memories, drumming up terrors from others’ pasts including a Pogrom, the holocaust and an antisemitic hate crime for which Yakov struggles with guilt.  The mazik isn’t just a torturous demon but is a symbol for the horrors in Jews’ pasts and present, and Yakov becomes all of us in learning to forgive himself and learning to tackle these horrors with his faith.

Yakov’s Judaism answers for so much in the film; why doesn’t he just run?  Why doesn’t he call for help? Yakov, though he tries at times to escape the house, is not much tempted to flee as he is unable to simply skirt his religious obligation to the dead out of his own fear.  His connection to his community, be it former or present, is strong, and his religion is a part of him. Yakov ultimately learns to harness the power of his faith, arming himself to fight the mazik with tefillin and the Shema.  Tefillin are small leather boxes that carry scrolls, fastened to leather straps that Jewish men “wrap,” meaning to wrap them around their arms and head at the morning and evening prayers. The Shema is the staple prayer in Judaism, said in morning and evening prayers, and at times when one is seeking protection.  There are no crosses and holy water here, but their Jewish counterparts. But Yakov isn’t simply performing a ritual to fight this demon, Yakov is finding the version of religion within himself that helps him reconcile his real pain as exploited by the mazik.

As a Jewish horror fan, this moment was more than striking.  I teared up at the sight of Yakov wrapping his tefillin like a boxer preparing their hands for the glove.  To see such a core element of my heritage, something I’d often associated with high holidays, and, to be honest, rituals surrounding death, being used in a powerful heroic moment was more than my dry eyes could bear, and I watched the entire scene through glassy tears. 

THE VIGIL is the feature debut of writer and director Keith Thomas, whose foray into Jewish horror comes naturally; he’s studied Jewish monsters and has written for a host of mediums.  What also appears to come naturally to Thomas is his ability to time a scare. I found myself yelping in fear at a few well-placed jumps, and shivering and tearing up in good measure.  This is a masterful work in building tension that uses twists on typical scares, a smartphone as both a lifeline and a scare tactic, and gives the bare minimum of relief to make it to the end of the film.  

THE VIGIL is scary, point-blank.  It doesn’t break the mold of what we’ve seen in other classic demon haunts, but I never wanted it to.  The demon haunt is a favorite category for a reason; it works, and this is a welcome addition to the genre.  

Davis is excellent as Yakov. Most of the movie is told while in his face, and he manages to take us on the journey of sadness, fear, guilt, and strength.  He learned, not only, Yiddish for the film, but to speak in the version of Hebrew associated with the Hasidic community.  

THE VIGIL might not separate itself from the scares we’ve seen in other demon favorites, but it isn’t meant to.  It does a flawless job at exploiting the demon haunt genre and stands firmly beside its counterparts. By layering on Judaism, the film manages to tell a deeper story about Jewish trauma while also representing Jews on screen in a way I had never seen.  I love this movie, and I pray you get to see it soon.

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Lindsay Traves

Lindsay is a writer, blogger and columnist based in the Big Smoke. After submitting her Bachelor’s thesis, “The Metaphysics of Schwarzenegger Movies,” she decided to focus on writing about her passions; sci-fi, horror, sports and comic books. She's probably talking about Scream right now or convincing a stranger to watch The Guest, or even more likely drawing a detailed timeline for the Alien franchise. You can catch her running internal monologue on twitter @smashtraves
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