Film review: The Vigil

This Chasidic chiller is the first horror film to be made in Yiddish


With a long list of successful releases under their belt, horror outfit Blumhouse Productions appear to have cornered the market for fast and effective spine-chillers. Their latest release, however, is a horror film with a difference. Dubbed the first mainstream horror film in Yiddish, The Vigil marks an interesting departure for executive producer Jason Blum, the man behind titles such as Insidious, The Purge and the award winning post-race horror Get Out.

Written and directed by novelist turned filmmaker Keith Thomas, The Vigil stars Dave Davis (The Walking Dead) and Charedi actor Menashe Lustig, who starred in the 2017 semi-autobiographical Yiddish feature film Menashe.

We meet Yakov Ronen (Davis), a formerly observant young Chasid, as he takes part in a weekly support group for those who have left their close-knit Orthodox communities in Brooklyn. Yakov is still unsure about how to navigate his new life in an unfamiliar secular society. Struggling with guilt over the death of his younger brother, he can’t help but feel out of place, even when fellow group member Sarah (Malky Goldman, Unorthodox) takes an interest in him.

That same night, Yakov is approached by his persistent former rabbi Reb Shulem (Lustig) who offers to pay him to watch over the body of the recently deceased Mr Litvak (Ronald Cohen). As he is strapped for cash, he accepts, but refuses to be drawn into a discussion on religion . At the Litvaks’ house, the young man soon realises the dead man and his frail old widow (Lynn Cohen) have both been haunted by a dybbuk, a malevolent presence which feeds on painful memories and which has now attached itself to him.

Director Keith Thomas does a great job in elevating this story from the usual jump-scare-heavy tropes we’ve come to expect from the Blumhouse stable to something with little more substance. Dealing with themes relating to faith, guilt and Holocaust trauma, The Vigil is steeped in ancient Jewish superstition and mysticism, something which Thomas has captured with frightening ease.

There is an eerie creepiness about The Vigil which is both terrifying and impressive in its treatment of folklore and old superstition. It is also clear that Thomas knows his craft inside out and who knows what he could achieve if Blumhouse turned this into another one of its lucrative franchises.

Davis puts in an extraordinary turn and even if nothing else comes of the film itself, his performance alone is worth every second of our time. He portrays Yakov as a wounded young man attempting to piece his life together. For his part, Lustig already seems like an old pro at this. His portrayal of the judgmental and enigmatic Reb Shulem is genuinely impressive, especially for someone who is barely on his second ever acting role.

The Vigil does a great job in laying out some interesting theological ideas while debunking some of the more obscure elements of Judaism. Overall, this is an impressive first feature from Thomas, who should be praised for his ability to broach such sensitive themes with a great deal of tenderness and respect for his subjects. Enlightening and genuinely engaging.

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