There are ceremonies around death in every culture that requires obligation and respect of traditions. Some may bring up past traumas, and we see this in Keith Thomas’ The Vigil.
Yakov (Dave Davis) is an awkward young man coping with the faith he left and something from his past that breaks his very core. He goes to a support group and has successfully separated himself from the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. One evening he is asked by Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) to be a “shomer,” someone who sits with a recently deceased person to ensure the soul is at rest and safe from evil spirits. The dead man, Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen), was a recluse, described as strange in the community, and no one else will do it. Since Yakov needs the money, he negotiates a fee to sit overnight with the dead man. Yakov will soon find out why Shulem uses this descriptor as the night wears on. Left alone with Mrs. Litvak (the late Lynn Cohen), a frail woman with Alzheimer’s, he learns that not only was Mr. Litvak strange, but he had a specific belief that a supernatural entity was haunting him. Yakov must try to last the night and make sure his mind isn’t playing tricks on him with his own haunted past.
The Vigil illustrates how one trauma unwittingly heals another. Yakov deals with a terrible incident that scars him, leading him to reject his orthodox way of life. Litvak also reveals his horrific experiences to be the cause of his torment as well. Both characters are attacked because of who they are in the material world and their spiritual pain within the supernatural realm. Thomas uses generational trauma to provide a deeper understanding of the atrocities Jews underwent during the Holocaust and the remaining prejudices born from the ignorant and the evils found in the past and today.
Thomas also does horror really well. Sparks of current tech are supported by familiar, old-school scares that enhance the horror of a man who needs to deal with his demons. Shadowy rooms, tense silences and things that go bump in the night are well played, and the creepy score by Michael Yezerski rushes at you unexpectedly. Davis is terrific as Yakov, and while the character’s experience is unique to his culture, many can relate to the pain of loss that Yakov carries. I was thrilled to see veteran stage and screen actor Lynn Cohen, who some might remember as Magda from HBO’s Sex in the City, in one of her last roles before she passed in February of 2020.
We desperately need films that give a perspective of the non-Christian way of life and tradition in the horror genre, created by those who live the experience, and The Vigil delivers it brilliantly. I can’t wait to see what Thomas has in store for us next.
See The Vigil on demand and in select theatres February 26.