Since cinemas closed, it feels like there has been little in the way of genuinely scary material for horror fans. Animated movies, light-footed dramas and fun comedies have been able to thrive in the arena of lockdown VOD releases, but the dark side of the cinematic world has been largely absent. With cinemas beginning to throw open their doors, the reliable folk at Blumhouse are back with The Vigil — an intriguing horror tale set within the Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn.
Yakov (Dave Davis) is drifting away from his Orthodox roots, opening the movie in a group for those trying to find a different relationship with their religion. He is approached after the meeting by a relative (Menashe Lustig), who wants to pay Yakov to act as a “shomer”, carrying out a tradition in which a member of the community sits vigil with the body of a deceased person overnight. Strapped for cash, he reluctantly accepts the role, only for strange things to start happening almost immediately, drawing Yakov back into the trauma of his past.
Thomas, making his directorial debut here, showcases an admirable flair for delivering effective jolts. He’s working with a pretty standard grab bag of horror scares — cracking joints, flickering lights, dark hair being pulled out of mouths — and there’s no sense of a wheel being reinvented, but the milieu and the conceit is new and so it certainly gives the dusty old tropes a fresh coat of paint.
Davis is an enjoyable central presence, drenched in sadness and wearing his grief and trauma in every insecure utterance and hangdog expression. Crucially, he’s a likeable protagonist and one who remains inherently sympathetic as the movie throws supernatural horrors his way, while he sits at the bedside of a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. The flashbacks into his past are initially intriguing and powerful, but ultimately fall into the same rather generic trap as the rest of the movie.
The Vigil struggles to ever escape the traditional horror confines within which it exists. It’s a Blumhouse movie and so it retains the same production line approach as many of the company’s second-tier properties, with the action largely unfolding within a handful of rooms, lit only by lamps and the light of Yakov’s phone torch. Meanwhile, Michael Yezerski’s score is enormous to a fault and works occasionally, but often drowns out the action. The demonic Mazzik is explained with a laughable dump of exposition, but its grotesque potential is rather squandered by the insistence upon turning it into another generic supernatural beastie.
Thomas also underplays and underuses many of the elements that add colour to the movie’s story, with Malky Goldman barely featured as Yakov’s potential girlfriend and his intriguing doubts about faith playing second fiddle to the supernatural shenanigans. The filmmaker deserves praise for setting a horror movie within this uniquely Jewish scenario, but he never really makes the most of the very different feel available to him.
There are numerous elements of The Vigil that really do work, but Thomas consistently falls into the trap of convention when the potential to step out is right there in the bloodstream of the story. If you’re after a few things going bump in the night, then The Vigil has everything you want. For those on the hunt for something more, though, nuance and thematic depth is in fairly short supply.
Dir: Keith Thomas
Scr: Keith Thomas
Prd: J.D. Lifshitz, Adam Margules, Raphael Margules
DOP: Zach Kuperstein
Music: Michael Yezerski
Run time: 90 mins
The Vigil will be available in UK cinemas from 31st July.