As we approach Pesach, the holiday where Jews like myself celebrate liberation from slavery in Egypt and reflect on our history, the question of Jewish identity reaps through my mind.
Throughout the last few years, the Jewish community’s internal conflict has felt omnipresent, not just from a political perspective but from a religious and cultural one as well. We are seeing more media explore the conflicts within the stricter, more fringe elements of the Jewish community, such as Unorthodox or Shtisel (which is getting an American remake soon); so clear that these anxieties are bubbling to the surface, releasing themselves from the confines of the community. This excites me more than anything, and those anxieties are perfectly and subtly captured in the 2021 horror film, The Vigil.
The Vigil focuses on Yakov (Dave Davis) a former member of the Orthodox community who’s asked to perform a Shemira, a.k.a keeping vigil, over a deceased man as a Shomer. As he keeps watch, he experiences a haunting from a malevolent demon known as a Mazzikin, trying to corrupt the body and keep Yakov locked in the house.
As a horror film, it’s creepy and atmospheric. Director Keith Thomas knows how to make you feel trapped in the house with Yakov. The restricting and binding cinematography gives the film weight, and the methodic pacing knows how to keep your heart-pumping as you, like Yakov, panic trying to figure out what’s going on. The occasional jump-scare took me out of the film a couple of times, but not enough to ruin the claustrophobic mood. The use of Talmudic elements and Jewish traditions throughout the film never feels like window dressing, as they’re all tied to specifically Jewish anxieties.
The opening of the film shows Davis in a support group for Jews who recently left Orthodox communities, as they struggle to adjust to the secular world and sometimes leaving abusive circumstances. The film implies Yakov coming out of an abusive situation within the Orthodox community, just enough for us to feel his emotional distress without needing exposition. Throughout the film, Yakov battles with this crisis in faith and identity, further amplified by the man who tasked Yakov with being a Shomar, Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), who keeps trying to bring Yakov back into the Orthodox fold. Yakov’s experience with the haunting expertly reflects his identity crisis, giving his battle more weight beyond the traditional haunting.
The Vigil is a horror film with character and a uniquely Jewish perspective that distinguishes it beyond the traditional Christian elements omnipresent in supernatural horror films. Horror fans will enjoy it as a fun, intense, creepy haunting, but Jewish horror-fans like myself will resonate with the film’s themes and Yakov’s arc. If you’re looking for a fun horror screening after Pesach Seder, The Vigil is a fun one to check out.
The Vigil is released via IFC Midnight and is available now to rent on Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime.