From where, then, does Thomas mine his terrors? One answer seems obvious: the film forces its characters to look inward at both personal and cultural loss. The other answer, however, isn’t one you’d expect: The Vigil’s horror is just as technological as it is supernatural.
The story spans a single night and follows Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), a young Hasidic man in New York who attends a support group for those who’ve left ultra-Orthodoxy behind. He feels isolated even in social settings. Money is tight, forcing him to choose between meals and medication, and he hasn’t yet grown comfortable with dating norms; his group-mate Sarah (Malky Godlman) puts her number in his phone when he can’t figure out how. There’s also something deeper troubling Yakov — something more painful than these new fears of technology and intimacy — which the film holds back on revealing until the moment is opportune. Perhaps it waits a little too long, but scenes, where the tension dissipates are few and far between
When the group session ends, Yakov is approached by his former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig, subject of semi-autobiography Menashe), who offers him an overnight job for a quick payday. It seems like Yakov’s money woes might be temporarily soothed, but Shulem has other motives: the job is that of a shomer, or a guardian for a recently deceased Hasidic man named Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen), and Shulem hopes the tradition will nudge Yakov back towards his religious roots.Yakov agrees to the money, though not to Shulem’s spiritual advances, and heads straight to the Litvaks’ dingy two-story residence in Borough Park. Complicating matters is the fact that the widowed Mrs. Litvak (the late, inimitable Lynn Cohen) suffers from dementia, but the task seems simple enough: Yakov must watch over the deceased for five hours, until sunrise. However, something is amiss, both with the body and with the darkened surroundings. Yakov has been taking pills, so it could all just be a trick of the mind, but he soon begins to see and hear things lurking in the shadows. He also discovers that Mr. Litvak had become obsessed with a mazzik — a malevolent demon from Talmudic lore — which he believed had been haunting him, and would pass to a nearby soul upon his death. Could Yakov be that soul?
The Vigil feels like a tug of war between tradition and modernity. Yakov hopes to leave behind his old Hasidic life and assimilate into gentile society, but upon entering the Litvaks’ home, he’s immediately surrounded by traditional imagery, which reminds him of a past in which he stuck out sorely, in even in a city as multicultural as New York. One such sleep-deprived flashback involves an antisemitic attack, during which Yakov’s payos (or side-curls) and traditional Hasidic garb turned him and his younger brother Burech (Ethan Stone) into instant targets. Yakov may not bear the physical scars of this incident, but it weighs on him emotionally and makes his new buzz-cut appearance feel like an attempt to suppress this painful history.
Jewish trauma plays a key part in the film’s creeping horrors, though strangely, some of the experiences Yakov recalls may not even be his own. The film frequently circles back to a scene from the Holocaust — specifically, an anonymous Jewish man being forced, by a Nazi officer, to do terrible things to survive — and though the film doesn’t provide a direct explanation, it offers hints that the mazzik may be able to conjure other people’s memories. The only thing Yakov knows about Mr. Litvak is that he survived the Holocaust — but no matter whose memories these are, they evoke a larger, more violent history whose specter Yakov can’t escape.
Yakov’s flashback and these mysterious World War II memories are linked aesthetically to some of the abstract, seemingly supernatural goings-on around the Litvaks’ home. The result is a narrative continuum in which intergenerational trauma defines not just the characters, but the physical spaces around them. The attack in Yakov’s past unfolded on a darkened street, and the house he now finds himself in is engulfed in shadow; when the demon first takes physical form, its legs peek out from behind a wall, evoking an image from Yakov’s flashback best left unspoiled. Similarly, the Holocaust memory involves a woman turning her head back to gaze at the mysterious man, and Mr. Litvak’s description of the mazzik (in a video he recorded) involves a ghastly figure with its head turned backward, forever cursed to gaze into the past. The mazzik’s horrific appearance is revealed slowly, and it thankfully doesn’t end up a deflating CGI-fest like many monsters of its ilk (the otherwise adept His House comes to mind). As much as the mazzik embodies physical torment, it’s also a twisted mirror to personal and generational survivor’s guilt. For the most part, the film’s scares emanate from within.
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But even though tradition is where the horror seems to originate, modernity isn’t the answer. In fact, escape from tradition is framed as equally terrifying, when it involves traumas unaddressed. The question of why Yakov can’t simply leave the house is answered in delightfully gory fashion, and the film even takes a few sharp turns into tech thriller territory. At first, this feels like throwing too much at the wall just to see what sticks — strange videos, phone calls, and text messages keep entering the film’s fabric — but it slowly ends up working on numerous fronts.
For one thing, Yakov’s own perspective becomes less reliable as the night wears on (and he certainly can’t trust Mrs. Litvak’s), and as technology evolves, a digital image can be as easily manipulated as a distant memory. So the concept of truth, both internal and external, becomes increasingly hazy. For another, the film also begins to fold tradition and modernity together in intriguing ways. The camera constantly holds on dark corners and negative spaces — we love a good “What’s in the shadows?” story, don’t we, folks? — but each time the film displays texts and other media (right beside the main character, à la Sherlock or House of Cards), it overlays these messages and videos over dark corners of the screen. At first, the light emanating from them feels like a respite; Yakov retreats into his phone as a distraction from whatever he may (or may not) be seeing. But soon, even his phone — his window into modernity, and his escape from the Litvaks’ home — becomes a source of unease. The personal intimacy of texts, calls and video chats feels uncanny and uncertain when he sees and hears things he shouldn’t even on his screen. Light becomes just as chilling as darkness.
Some of the film’s techniques may feel familiar (especially with regards to jump scares), but the way Thomas & co. capture intimate spaces have a unique finesse. For one thing, the film’s use of anamorphic lenses — so often associated with either portrait-like close-ups or gorgeous landscapes — makes even empty space feel disorienting. A simple pan across the darkness, from a distracted, dimly lit Yakov to the body he’s watching over subtly distorts his own body as he’s pushed to the curved corner of the frame, foreshadowing physical horrors yet to come. Zach Kuperstein’s low-light, high-contrast cinematography is downright eerie. The few times he lets brightness enter the frame, it’s immediately turned into anamorphic flares, with light once again becoming as disorienting as darkness. Whatever the shadowy mazzik comes to represent for Yakov, there’s no escape from it.
Without getting into too much detail, the major exception to this aesthetic approach arrives at a key story moment, when Yakov decides to face his traumas head-on by finally embracing some part of himself he left behind. The scene is lit by Shabbat candles, rather than electric and electronic sources which keep flickering in and out. The candles never waver; thanks to tradition, Yakov briefly knows stability. His embrace involves him wrapping the straps of a tefillin — a black leather box inscribed with Torah verses — around his arm as the music swells. It’s a deeply reconciliatory moment, of a man finding fleeting comfort amidst emotional turbulence, and Yakov’s resolve also makes him feel a boxer taping his wrists before a dangerous fight. Although, on a deeper level, it feels like the bonds between his past and present being reforged, albeit temporarily, as he searches for a path to spiritual healing.
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That aforementioned emotional musical swell is an exception too. It’s the only time Michael Yezerski’s score is populated by traditional string instruments. During the rest of the film, Yezereski fills the soundscape with a combination of deeply unsettling electronic sounds and, if you listen closely, human voices crying out in agony. The music practically saws its way through nerve and muscle until it touches bone; every element of the film is jarring on the surface, but when you dig a little deeper, it reveals something both more spine-chilling and more recognizably human.
Shapeless shadows begin to take familiar forms. Mysterious sounds begin to resemble footsteps. And the performances by Dave Davis and Lynn Cohen force their way past two-dimensional horror tropes — a troubled man who might be an unreliable narrator, and an old woman uncomfortably close to demonic conspiracies — until they become deeply moving portraits of lingering trauma, and the way grief manifests in mind, body, and spirit.