Jewish superstition has been riddled with dybbuks and golems for centuries, but horror movies haven’t wised up to it nearly enough. “The Vigil” is proof that bible-thumping priests and haunted convents can’t have all the spooky fun. In director Keith Thomas’s eerie first feature “The Vigil,” a young man estranged from the Orthodox Jewish community of Borough Park, Brooklyn, agrees to fulfill the duties of a “shomer,” the ritualistic practice of looking after a dead body over the course of one night. Desperate for rent money, he agrees, unwittingly signing up for a long night with a possessed corpse.
The ensuing mayhem relies on the usual preponderance of jump scares, but Thomas combines those moments with aplomb and surprising thematic depth. Set almost exclusively within the confines of the shadowy home, “The Vigil” suggests the potential for a new angle on “The Conjuring” universe via Jewish guilt and Holocaust trauma. And if “Conjuring” owner Warner Bros. doesn’t ingest its lore, Thomas has ample potential for a new franchise of his own.
“The Vigil” takes place almost entirely at night, as Yakov (Dave Davis) wraps up a support group for young Hasids who have abandoned their faith. Having grown up in an insular world defined by traditions, Yakov’s adjustment to secular ways is a work in progress. After a cringe-worthy effort to ask out a young woman from the group (Malky Goldman), he attempts to shoo off his former rabbi (Menashe Lustig, the star of the sweet 2017 drama “Menashe”) when the pesky zealot materializes outside. But the offer’s too good, and Yakov has leverage, since an earlier shomer was scared off from the gig for reasons that become clear later on. After some typical haggling, Yakov’s introduced to the creepy old widow Mrs. Litvak, who vanishes upstairs as he settles into a chair next to the dead man’s body.
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Covered in a white sheet for the duration of the movie, the corpse is a perfect minimalist vessel for the frights to come. A close cousin of the morgue-center freakishness in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” Thomas’ story wastes no time turning up the scare factor, with the usual parade of flickering lamps, sudden movements in the shadows of the frames, and streaking music cues just in case the last two devices didn’t get the adrenaline flowing enough. However, even as “The Vigil” settles into a familiar routine, it tackles that task with a polished, at times even elegant approach to a haunted house formula.
Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, whose haunting black-and-white imagery injected “The Eyes of My Mother” with such hideous power, explores the interiors of the cramped Litvak home with a sophisticated use of light and shadow; some scenes have been so baked in darkness they grow disorienting, reflecting Yakov’s own subjective descent as the night wears on. Strange circumstances come and go — phone calls and FaceTime conversations turn sinister at unlikely moments, and horrific phantoms lurk in murky corners — but “The Vigil” also manages to draw out the mythological intrigue, as Yakov learns about the demonic presence haunting the Litvak home, and what he must do to avoid their terrible fate.
The specifics of that setup are rich with implications about the historical specter of anti-Semitism and the underlying roots of secular Jewish identity. “The Vigil” succeeds at translating contemporary horror tropes into “Get Out” for the gefilte-fish set, and doesn’t need to overextend itself with a contrived revelation about the sudden loss that led Yakov to abandon his faith. But the filmmaking maintains its gripping spell all way through a final showdown that forces the man to rely on his spiritual training once more, with the most dramatic use of phylacteries since the “tefillin as grappling hook” gag in “The Hebrew Hammer.”
If that means nothing to you, the grab bag of jolts and screams that dominate “The Vigil” might feel a tad stale. But the movie does an effective job of mapping out the specifics of its setting, from the flashes of Yiddish phrases to the ritualistic asides, and Lustig’s casting points to the level of authenticity in play. As with “Menashe,” the movie navigates the contradictions of religious Judaism without denigrating the people who actually commit to its tenets. And it provides the opportunity to consider the how this material might continue in future installments. (Imagine the VOD potential for “The Vigil 2: The Bris From Beyond.”)
Above all else, the movie provides a remarkable showcase for Davis, who commands every scene as a man grasping to contain his fear of things going bump in the night while struggling with internal conflicts far heavier than the supernatural events in play. Even a gimmicky horror movie needs real ideas to animate the sense of concern for its characters, especially since the genre never guarantees a happy ending. “The Vigil” takes that philosophy to heart, right down to a brilliant final shot riddled with implications about Yakov’s psychological challenges. The best verses don’t require biblical scholars to appreciate their depth, and neither does Thomas’ accomplished debut.
“The Vigil” premiered in the Midnight Madness section of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.