Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Vigil

Yakov Ronen must spend the night in the most frightening place on earth: Brooklyn. Frankly, he would be better off on the streets than in the Litvaks’ Borough Park home. It is not the Litvaks he has to worry about, especially since Mr. Litvak is dead. Rather ominously, that means the mazzik demon that consumed his life force will be looking for a new victim and he would fit the bill perfectly in director-screenwriter Keith Thomas’s The Vigil, which releases this Friday in theaters and on VOD.

Ronen left the Orthodox community after a harrowing personal tragedy that still haunts him. He found a constructive support group for personal stuff, but he remains completely unprepared for the civilian job market. As a result, he reluctantly accepts a shomer gig from his old rabbi, sitting vigil for the late Mr. Litvak. Rather suspiciously, the previous shomer backed out as soon as he set foot in the Litvak home.

After the tragedy, Ronen essentially turned against religion and spirituality, but he still hears the weird noises throughout the Litvak house. He is also spooked by the apparently disturbed Mrs. Litvak, who seems to think her husband was plagued by an ancient mazzik that latched onto the profound anguish he carried with him from the Holocaust. It gets harder for Ronen to dismiss their fanciful notions when he starts to see a sinister figure in the shadows.

Incorporating the Holocaust as a plot point in a horror movie is a potentially perilous practice, but
The Vigil never feels exploitative. It is also scary as heck, while maintaining a humanistic element at its core, which is quite a nifty trick. This is easily one of the most distinctive feature debuts of the year, in any genre.

Thomas creates an overwhelming sense of dread and wrings nerve-racking tension out of the claustrophobic setting. Viewers also really, deeply care because Dave Davis so compelling as the nakedly wounded Ronen. Likewise, Lynn Cohen keeps the audience off-balance and guessing with her performance as Mrs. Livak, yet there is still considerable pathos and compassion to her portrayal. Arguably (and maybe to some ironically),
The Vigil addresses themes of trauma and guilt with far more honesty than most “respectable” awards-baiting dramas.

Yet, Thomas always takes care of the horror business at hand. This is a seriously creepy film, with a great deal of credit also due to cinematographer Zach Kuperstein and production designer Liz Toonkel whose work helps craft the dark and stifling look and feel of the film. It has to be legit, since Jason Blum is on-board as an executive producer (for an IFC Midnight release). Very highly recommended,
The Vigil opens this Friday (2/26) in select theaters and on digital platforms.