Capsule Review: The Vigil (2021)

First premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival before making its theatrical debut in selected countries such as UK and Australia, The Vigil caught my attention for setting its horror genre within the Jewish community and culture. Besides, most Hollywood horror films are largely rooted in the frequently-explored Christianity so I have to say a Jewish-themed The Vigil brings a refreshing change of pace.

The movie, which takes place in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community of Boro Park, centres on a cash-strapped young man named Yakov (Dave Davis), who stuck between choosing “medication and meals” receives an offer one night from Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig). Apparently, he wants Yakov to watch over a recently deceased Holocaust survivor, Mr Litvak (Ronald Cohen) as a shomer a.k.a. watchman — a form of religious ritual which is part of the Jewish tradition. Since Yakov needs money badly, he agrees to do so for US$400. It was supposed to be an easy job given his past experience as a shomer. And yet, over the course of a single night, he starts to see something strange and haunting. Is it real or simply his mind playing tricks on him?

Produced under the Blumhouse banner, The Vigil marks the feature-length debut of writer-director Keith Thomas, who already got enlisted to direct the upcoming Stephen King’s Firestarter. Reportedly cost a lowly US$1.8 million to make, the limited budget does rear its ugly head in some of the dimly-lit scenes as well as the mediocre effect of a demonic presence known as mazzik. The movie also relies on the usual jump scares every now and then while the ending feels somehow anticlimactic, especially given its promising setup and all the creepy teases earlier on.

Still, if you can look past some of the glaring flaws here, The Vigil remains a fairly effective, low-budget horror film. Dave Davis brings a sympathetic presence to his role of Yakov, a struggling young man who isn’t only forced to deal with the unknown lurking within the deceased Mr Litvak’s house but also his own personal demon.

Keith Thomas does what he can to elicit some genuine scares and suspenseful moments with his clever use of camerawork, sound effects and dark environment. He also knows how to make good use of long takes as he effectively building anticipation and dread that something might happen at any time. Michael Yezerski’s evocative score deserves mention as well, combining a subtle mix of instrumental and electronic sounds to unsettling effects.

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