'The Vigil': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Oy gevalt!

Writer-director Keith Thomas’ feature debut is a horror movie set in the Orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn.

Get out your tallit, your tefillin and your terrifying visions of a diabolical entity twisting your body into a pretzel, because The Exorcist is coming to Borough Park.

Such is the unorthodox (or is that Orthodox?) premise of The Vigil, a devilish, and very Yiddish, bone-crunching chiller set in Brooklyn’s premier Hasidic neighborhood.

Written and directed by first-timer Keith Thomas, the film spends one frightful night with Yakov (the excellent Dave Davis), a young man who recently quit the sectarian Jewish community but gets pulled back in to serve as a shomer, watching over a dead body until it gets taken off for burial. Suffice to say this was a bad idea, as Yakov has to contend with a dybbuk (Yiddish for evil spirit) who haunts his every waking minute, as well as his nightmares, with an onslaught of grisly shock-horror scares.

Following the low-budget Blumhouse formula of one location plus one monster that you hardly ever see (a formula Jason Blum borrowed from the likes of RKO producer Val Lewton), Thomas displays an ample skill set for making us jump out of our seats at opportune moments, although he tends to overdo it on the tympanum-busting sound effects. More intriguing is how he chose to set his film in such a specific milieu, with the actors switching between English and Yiddish, and multiple references to the Torah, the Talmud and the Holocaust that give the story a unique cultural grounding.

Premiering in TIFF’s Midnight Madness section, The Vigil has the chops and the craft — kudos especially go to cinematographer Zach Kuperstein (The Climb) for his exquisitely shadowed lighting — to get bar mitzvahed beyond the fest circuit, where it could find both limited theatrical release and a prolonged afterlife on streaming sites.

A brief intro shows Yakov sitting in a support group with other people who have given up on Orthodox Judaism. (Such groups were featured in the 2017 documentary One of Us.) On the way out, he meets a cousin (Menashe Lustig from the indie drama Menashe, which was set in the same neighborhood) who offers him a few hundred bucks to hold vigil at the home of Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) — a women stricken with Alzheimer’s whose husband, a Holocaust survivor, passed away earlier in the day.

The stage is thus set for a long night of mayhem, with Yakov stuck in a cramped living room furnished with giant lamps, yellowing wallpaper — production designer Liz Toonkel gets these details just right — and a dead body that starts doing things a dead body shouldn’t. As the terror takes over, Yakov has to fight two demons at once: those haunting the soul of Mr. Litvak and his own inner demons, which were generated by the tragic death of his young brother after the two were bullied by a gang of anti-Semites.

Thomas keeps the tension high throughout most of the movie, even if some of his scare tactics can feel redundant. Just because the devil in The Exorcist twisted limbs and spun heads around, it doesn’t mean this one has to do the same. Or do all Jewish and gentile devils act alike? The director also turns the sound mix up extra high to induce maximum goosebumps, but the result can give you a slight headache.

What works better is how Thomas transforms Orthodox culture into gory material for a slightly elevated horror flick, with Yakov ultimately turning to Hebrew prayer as his only way out of hell. Davis is extremely convincing as a guy who suffers PTSD from his dogmatic upbringing, and who at one point makes a desperate call to his shrink (voiced by Fred Melamed, who memorably played the Sy Ableman character in A Serious Man) that ends with a frightening twist. Veteran stage and character actor Cohen is also perfectly cast as the creepy Jewish grandmother you don’t want to sit down and have rugelach with.

Production companies: Boulderlight Pictures, Angry Adam Productions
Cast: Dave Davis, Lynn Cohen, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Fred Melamed
Director-screenwriter: Keith Thomas
Producers: Raphael Margules, J.D. Lifshitz, Adam Margules
Executive producer: Daniel Finkelman
Director of photography: Zach Kuperstein
Production designer: Liz Toonkel
Costume designer: Nicole Rauscher
Editor: Brett W. Bachman
Composer: Michael Yezerski
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Sales: CAA

88 minutes