They are called shomers, folks who sit by a recently deceased family member or loved one, often in shifts, to watch over the body before burial. It’s a centuries-old Jewish tradition, designed to keep the soul of the dead safe from harm. Should a relative be unwilling or unable to perform this duty, it’s possible to pay a professional to sub in. It’s an honor and a calling, though there are some pitfalls in the shomer-for-hire business one needs to be aware of. The likelihood of extreme boredom is high for those who aren’t comfortable with silence, corpses, or a lack of company. The hours can be unusual. And there’s always the possibility that you may run into a spirit that, having been previously feeding off the anima of the person who’s just joined the choir invisible, may be looking for a fresh host.
An intriguing stab at modern Hasidic horror — we smell a burgeoning subgenre — The Vigil (in theaters and online starting February 26th) will feel like well-trod ground to anyone who’s seen a few supernatural thrillers; only the neighborhood has changed. Filmed among Brooklyn’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park, writer-director Keith Thomas’ debut stakes its claim in that spectral corner of cinema du scare via a specific set of cultural rules, superstitions, rituals, and mores. Although when we meet the man who’ll be our guide to this particular haunted house, he’s severed his ties to all of that. Yakov (Dave Davis) has left his Hasidic life behind and is trying to figure out how to navigate his new life. He has a support group, a mentor-cum-sponsor (Nati Rabinowitz), and the attentions of a young woman named Sarah (Malky Goldman). What Yakov needs is money.
So when a community elder (Menashe Lustig, star of the extraordinary character study Menashe) ambushes him after a meeting and begs the young man to fill in for an AWOL shomer at the last minute, Yakov reluctantly accepts. Maybe it will be of comfort to you, the older reb suggests. Maybe you can reconnect to what you’ve forsaken. At the very least, it’s some quick cash. What neither men know is that the deceased comes with some baggage, including … something wicked that had attached itself to him decades ago after a tragedy. Given that Yakov himself suffered a serious trauma not that long ago, he may also be susceptible to this spiritual parasite. And if Michael Yezerski’s industrial-spooky score and Zach Kuperstein’s dark, forbidding cinematography somehow haven’t tipped you off that this is, in fact, a horror movie, the image of the two men walking up the steps to the late gent’s apartment, shot in perfect Exorcist silhouette, confirms that things are about to get terrifying.
The shadow of William Friedkin’s Seventies blockbuster looms large over every film from the past 50 years that’s dabbled in possession narratives and tales of personal demons being used as fodder by real demons. But it’s especially influential here, even with the Judaic folklore subbing in for Christian ideology. Unlike Father Karras, Yakov has left a world governed by religious beliefs and age-old practices. Like The Exorcist‘s white-collared knight, however, he has had a serious crisis of faith — if not in God, then certainly in a community that raised, nurtured, and possibly repressed him. A graduate of New York City’s Hebrew University College with a master’s in religious education, Thomas knows the world of which he depicts, and isn’t out to exploit Hasidism. He doesn’t seem that interested in exploring it much either, for that matter, which may be a blessing or a bit of a curse. Other than some criticism of the insular subculture’s conservative side via Yakov’s support group, there’s very little to suggest a deeper interest in or into this world past merely putting it onscreen. Which, given how little representation said world usually gets, could itself be construed as a stance. (If The Vigil doesn’t exactly double as a parable for cutting ties with orthodoxy, it does make the struggle literal — when Yakov tries to leave his post after things get nightmarish, he’s physically broken down and dragged right back to where he started.)
Yakov has also had a stay in a hospital that, it’s intimated, was preceded by a mental breakdown. Thus the lines are blurred as to whether little things like cadavers twitching under sheets, the dead man’s widow (played by the late, great Lynn Cohen) scurrying up a void of a staircase, the sound of a rotten toenail scraping against a linoleum floor, or a video clip texted to Yakov of him asleep on a chair in the same room he’s currently standing in are real or the product of a cracked mind. The dybbuk stops here regardless, and The Vigil is nothing if not determined to break out every trick in the malevolent-spirit-run-amuck book to spook, unsettle, and jar you. Unexplained noises, blaring soundtracks, sudden appearances (and disappearances), figures seemingly coming out of the walls, creepy-crawly bugs, basements with rickety 16mm projectors working of their own accord, a demonic mazzikin with heavy metaphorical significance: You can almost hear a checklist being ticked.
Thomas knows how to fill a frame and how to make something like the film’s final shot feel clever simply via a matter of focus. (The way he utilizes specific Jewish iconography for Yakov’s final standoff is a nice touch as well.) He also seems to rely heavily on a stock arsenal of scare tactics — as well as a message about letting go of guilt, pain, and the past — that can make you feel like you’ve seen/heard this ghost story before. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt in this case. It only makes you pine for its creator to follow a less predictable, less comfortable path.