Synopsis: A man providing overnight watch to a deceased member of his former Orthodox Jewish community finds himself opposite a malevolent entity.
Stars: Dave Davis, Lynn Cohen, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Fred Melamed, Nati Rabinowitz, Moshe Lobel
Director: Keith Thomas
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: If you’ve been following along these past few weeks, you know that I like to include a wide range of films for this website from the mainstream to the tiniest of indie films. This not only helps make me more well rounded and exposed to a number of different genres and filmmakers, but I think it gives you a variety of titles to choose from when you don’t know exactly what you want to watch. What I’ve now picked up on my own is that the Toronto International Film Fest (TIFF) truly is the “it” place to launch (or continue to launch) exciting buzz for a hefty number of titles. In particular, the 2019 festival is starting to have a trickle-down effect on a bounty of films I’ll be reviewing shortly. While I wasn’t too crazy about Saint Maud a short time ago, other familiar titles that have gone on to greater notoriety since their premiers were Parasite, Sound of Metal, Corpus Christi, Les Misérables, Waves, Pain and Glory, Marriage Story, Judy, and Knives Out to name but just a few.
The horror genre tends to be a little slim at TIFF, only because there’s a kind of prestige level that comes with the territory. Emerging from the 2019 fest were The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Sea Fever, and The Vigil, the latest release from IFC Midnight. In keeping on brand with the indie distributor’s reputation for exploring a more complex side of the scary movie, The Vigil might be lacking in propulsive movement at times but makes up for it with a well-established creeping sense of fear. Though we may begin the movie in a more relaxed state, it isn’t long before we’re as skittish as the main character thanks to an impressive sound design and cinematography that uses the light, not the darkness, against us.
Still recovering from a terrible tragedy that was the impetus for separating from his insular Orthodox upbringing, Yakov (Dave Davis) attends a support group with other Hasidic men and women that have left their faith. All struggle with adjusting to new customs and finding their own way forward but Yakov is in pretty dire straits where money is concerned. So the offer from his Rabbi cousin (Menashe Lustig) is appealing to him, but only because he needs the money, and his cousin is desperate enough to pay extra for his services. Apparently, in his days as an active member of the Hasidic community, he excelled in serving as a shomer, watching over a dead body until it gets taken off for burial and guarding it from evil. Usually, a family member or friend of the family takes on this responsibility but in some cases this long-time customary observance of superstition can be a paid obligation.
A recently deceased man, Mr. Litvak, needs a shomer because his wife Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) is unwell and can’t do it herself. Yakov would only need to stay for a few hours so she can rest in order to collect his money. Arriving at the home, aside from Mrs. Litvak’s slightly odd state, which is to be expected in her time of grief, everything else seems to be in order so Yakov settles in for what should be an easy way to earn some cash to pay his rent. Yet something seems to be out of order, there’s a sense of unease within the confines of the Litvak home. Floorboards creak, walls moan, and shadows take shape. The longer Yakov stays in the house the more he (and soon, we) come to see that evil has been present for some time, tethering itself to the family. Now that’s it has been faced with eviction…it’s looking for a new home.
First time writer/director Keith Thomas keeps The Vigil running taut for most of the way through it’s economical running time. Sure, it’s padded with an extra character or two that pop in and slow things down, but the movie is alarmingly frightening when Davis is by himself just letting the eerie atmosphere of the house sink in. It’s enough to give you the shivers watching him, who has performed this task many times, get progressively more terrified as the night continues. He shares a nice scene or two with the late, great Cohen as the Litvak widow who appears distraught and out of it at first but might be more on her game than we are led to believe.
If Thomas gets himself into a corner by the souped-up finale where there is no easy way out, it’s a forgivable misstep but not one that lacks in ambition. If anything, it’s a case of showing more than implying and then not really answering the questions you posed in the first place. That’s fine if you were always keeping your cards close to the vest but The Vigil is fairly straightforward most of the time. Even so, I watched this late at night and definitely had to keep the light on a little longer before comfortably being able to succumb to the pitch-black bedroom…so Thomas obviously achieved his goal. Approach this one with confidence.