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night of the living dread
The Vigil (15)
Director: Keith Thomas
Screenplay: Keith Thomas
Review: RJ Bland
Religious horror movies are often the ones that really get under people's skin. For most of us in the UK, US and Europe, that has taken the form of Christian horror (predominantly Catholic). Even though, generally speaking, the first world is becoming more secular, the concepts of good and evil, God and Satan, angels and demons are deeply embedded within out culture. As are concepts such as exorcisms and possession and witches etc. These are things that ideas that have existed – and scared us – for centuries and regardless of whether you actually believe there is any truth to any of it, it still seems to carry some weight, in horror movies at least. The devil (and demonic evil) is modern man's greatest villain and it's existed in films from Haxan (1922) to The Exorcist (1973) all the way up to recent standout features such as Hereditary (2018) and Host (2020). However, whilst religious horror films have been a staple of the genre since its inception, Jewish horror is something that's not been extensively covered, with Ole Bornedal's The Possession (2012) and Marcin Wrona's Demon (2015) perhaps being the best known of that niche. However Keith Thomas' The Vigil, produced by Blumhouse Pictures, is hoping to take that mantle...
Yakiv Ronen has recently distanced himself from his Orthodox Hasidic community in Brooklyn New York and is trying to adapt to a new way of life. However, it's clear that he's a troubled young man, bearing the scars of a past event (which reveals itself quite quickly). On top of these psychological issues, Yakiv is unemployed and struggling to eat and pay for his meds. However, when his rabbi offers him a chance for some easy money, he reluctantly accepts. The job? He has to act as a watchman (or Shomer) at an all-night vigil for a recently deceased man. However, there are a few complications. Firstly, Yakiv is replacing the previous Shomer who had left his post just hours before because he was 'afraid'. Secondly, the widow of the deceased still lives in the house and she has dementia. Yakiv is a desperate man however and is undeterred. He arrives at the house, the widow is indeed unstable but quickly goes up to bed and leaves him alone with the corpse (which has been covered with a blanket). All Yakiv has to do is stay there until dawn and he gets his money. However, it soon becomes apparent that there's something not quite right. There are weird noises upstairs, Yakiv thinks he sees movement in the shadowy corners of the room and why does the blanket that's covering the corpse in the living room seem to be moving slightly?
Thomas sets things up with quiet efficiency during the opening five to ten minutes. He also manages to stoke up a quietly unsettling atmosphere before we even get to the vigil. As Yakiv and his rabbi walk the dark streets of Brooklyn, discussing faith and the slightly unnerving details of the task at hand, there's something almost Exorcist about it. A deep, heavy, ominous sense of foreboding. It's a feeling that is only exacerbated once we arrive at the house of the deceased. Never has a living room felt so bloody scary. There are a couple of lamps to dispel the darkness, but Thomas fills the downstairs with large areas of negative space, shadows and ambient lighting. It's dread inducing. For the next thirty to forty minutes we are treated to a host of subtle (and some not so subtle) chills and we get a couple of truly frightening sequences.
Unfortunately this is where the film peaks, around the midpoint, and despite its best efforts, The Vigil struggles to maintain the tension and atmosphere from this point on. It's essentially a victim of its own early success. As with so many horror movies, once we know what we are dealing with – and it has a name - the mystery is gone and whilst the mythology around the antagonistic force is admittedly quite neat, it's still not as effective as not knowing. When the intrigue drops, you start to notice a couple of other downers too. Like the clunky exposition drops and the sketchy flashback scenes. The biggest problem with The Vigil is the climax, however. Or anti-climax, I should say. Always tough to go into too much detail without being spoilerific but compared to what has come before it is a bit of a damp squib. Not every ending has to be a Conjuring style face-off with whirlwinds and screaming and objects flying around everywhere (those are over the top anyway) but there's probably a middle-ground that would have worked a bit better here.
At it's heart, The Vigil is a film about grief, perhaps even more than it is about faith and Dave Davis does an excellent job in a quite demanding role. He's basically in every scene and the film is all the better for it. He's conflicted, he's undoubtedly flawed but he's so very human and Thomas' script has some real moments of levity in there which Davis delivers perfectly. The supporting cast are great also, with a special mention to Lynn Cohen, who plays the grieving widow. She's a vulnerable old lady with dementia one minute and a menacing presence the next. It's a treat to watch.
Blumhouse picked this up after a successful festival run and it's clear to see why. The Vigil feels fresh and yet rooted in the past at the same time (in a good way) and for fifty minutes or so is a masterstroke in terms of dread building. Although it won't be remembered as a classic, it shows that Thomas is a director of real promise and one to watch for the future – hopefully within horror.
Although the film fades towards the end and the climax is underwhelming, The Vigil is a carefully controlled exercise in tension and dread helmed by a director with a big future. Davis kicks ass too.
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