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With: Dave Davis, Lynn Cohen, Malky Goldman, Menashe Lustig
Written by: Keith Thomas
Directed by: Keith Thomas
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for terror, some disturbing/violent images, thematic elements and brief strong language
Running Time: 89
Date: 02/26/2021

The Vigil (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Mezzik Spell

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Always on the lookout for new monsters, the horror genre often benefits from digging into folklore, as it did with last year's La Llorona, and does again with the new The Vigil.

Available Friday on digital and VOD, The Vigil involves a demon out of Jewish folklore called a mazzik, which is less malevolent and more of a pest than a dybbuk, but still wreaks a considerable amount of havoc.

The movie opens on a meeting of several people, where the discussion is about fitting in. A woman talks about the strange experience of a strange man trying to pick her up on the subway.

Another man, Yakov (Dave Davis), describes going on a job interview not knowing that he was supposed to bring a resume.

These folks are not aliens disguised as humans. They are former Orthodox Jews who have left their religion and are trying to transition into a "normal" life in Brooklyn.

It's a clever introduction, juxtaposing the deep, long-held traditions of a religion with the characters' tender inexperience at life.

After the meeting, Sarah (Malky Goldman) asks Yakov if he'd like to get coffee sometime. He has no idea what to say or do, and he later is reduced to Googling "how to talk to women."

But meanwhile, Yakov is approached by his old rabbi, Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), with a special request. A shomer is needed tonight.

A shomer, the movie tells us, is a person who stays overnight with the body of the recently deceased, offering prayer and protection. A shomer may be a friend or a family member, or, if no one else is available, an outsider may be paid to do the job.

Yakov would rather not, but he needs the money.

Right away things seem odd. The deceased's widow, Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen), tells Yakov to get out. But the rabbi insists that everything is OK, and that Mrs. Litvak has dementia and will likely be sleeping through the night.

Yakov settles in. The night begins with thumping noises, and the lights flickering on and off, and then things get much spookier.

The evening is compounded when we learn that Yakov is already suffering from delusions and hallucinations, as a result of a trauma that resulted in the death of a loved one; he's seeing a doctor and takes medication.

So can we trust that anything here is really happening?

Most of the reason The Vigil works as well as it does rests on the performance by Davis, who has had small roles on TV's The Walking Dead and True Detective, but makes his breakout here.

His intensely expressive eyes convey deep-rooted pain, and every moment of his terror and panic feel absolutely real.

Even cleverer, his voice wobbles between a practiced, Orthodox cadence and a street-level Brooklyn accent, depending on how uneasy he's feeling at the moment; he's putting his guard up and letting it down.

Experience and inexperience bump heads in an intriguing way; Yakov has been a shomer before, but he has no idea how to text with Sarah. (He hesitates a few seconds before deciding to add a period at the end of one text.)

The Vigil was written and directed by Keith Thomas, making a strong feature filmmaking debut. (He has already landed a deal to direct a remake of Stephen King's Firestarter.)

To achieve his spooky atmosphere, Thomas mainly relies on a wailing, droning music score and unsettling sound design, as well as clever lighting. The lamps in Mrs. Litvak's home cast a perpetually brownish glow, making it feel darker and very late at night, and one crucial scene appears as if it's lit by a single candle.

His pacing is knot-tight, packing this one-night story into a compact 89 minutes, and cleverly mixing quiet moments of reflection with sudden seizings.

While it does have at least one solid spine-tingle and many other moments of chilling disquiet, The Vigil truthfully owes quite a bit to earlier horrors, including ghostly faces protruding from walls.

But while Thomas shows effective command of his filmmaking skills, what sets the film apart is the effective way he incorporates Jewish culture into the genre, staying truthful not only to its rituals and traditions, but also its doubts and downsides.

In that, The Vigil compares more closely to La Llorona — from Guatemala — than it does to the American-produced The Curse of La Llorona, which seemed more invested in appropriating the titular ghost for its own purposes than in paying tribute to the ghost's real culture.

To that end, The Vigil feels as if it comes from an honest place, as if Thomas grew up hearing stories of the mazzik and hiding under the sheets in fearful glee. This is an example of an artist wrestling with his inner demons and then sending them out into the world.

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