Jewish Horror ‘The Vigil’ Spins its Message of Inherited Trauma Through the Presence of a Dybbuk

A still from 'The Vigil'. Yakov (Dave Davis) sits in a darkened, out-of-style living room. His face is lit up by his phone and his headphones are in. Yakov is plain looking, with short dark hair and a fleece jumper on. Behind him you can see a body that is covered by a white sheet. The curtains are closed.
Vertigo Releasing

When we think about possession films, often it will conjure images of inverting crosses and Catholic priests, or maybe even vengeful spirits in Japanese folklore given the J-Horror boom of the early 00s— but the Hasidic Jewish community never really comes to mind. The practice of Shemira—in which a person is appointed to watch over the recently deceased to help the spirit remain close to the body until burial— certainly has all the makings for some fine horror content, and Keith Thomas’ debut feature does just that in an atmospheric crossover between The Conjuring and The Autopsy of Jane Doe.

Yakov (Dave Davis) is asked to be the Shomer for a Holocaust survivor named Ruben Litvak who has just died. Typically, a friend or family member will do this duty, but when that isn’t possible people are often paid to watch over the body of the deceased. This is the case with Yakov, who is approached by Reb (Menashe Lustig)— a member of the Orthodox community he used to be a part of— to take the place of the original Shomer who has suddenly dropped out from carrying out the vigil.

He is told he will have to sit with Ruben’s body for only five hours until Reb will return with others for morning prayers. Ruben’s wife (Lynn Cohen) is also in the home, but as she is suffering with dementia, Yakov is told its likely she will sleep through the night. Not only has director Keith Thomas placed a tight time frame onto the story, but also a serious restriction in location. Upon reaching the Litvak home, Yakov is confined to the cramped living and kitchen space of their dingy and dark house. It’s a smart decision that allows the audience to personally monitor the story and countdown to the films crescendo, all the while keeping the plot tight and contained.

Thomas builds a set of creeping fear in the incredibly darkened corners of the house, the scattered lamps throwing many a shadow across each wall with the distinct contrast of the white sheet covering Ruben’s body standing out in a home consumed by night. Of course, every creak and bump that Yakov begins to experience could be exhumed by simply turning the big light on but alas, such is the stupidity of 99% of the horror genre. As lights begin to flicker Yakov is overcome with visions that he believes to be a part of his PTSD from an anti-Semitic attack, failing to see the real malevolent force at play: a dybbuk latching onto Ruben.

A still from 'The Vigil'. Yakov (Dave Davis) is shrouded in darkness only lit by a candle he is holding. He is wearing the traditional Jewish Teffilin and looking scared to the right of the shot.
Vertigo Releasing

The presence of the dybbuk initially feels like a consuming entity—unseen but lurking in every crevice of the house— but is soon downtrodden in an all too common misstep where most modern horror films require a physical, visual manifestation of that entity. This isn’t an issue with any of the practical effects or creature design, but more that what the mind can conjure in the darkest corners of your bedroom when your coat is hanging off a chair in a particular formation is always more terrifying than when you turn the lights on to see it is in fact, a coat; the common film-making phrase ‘show, don’t tell’ needs to stop applying so literally to horror cinema. The dybbuk’s physical representation ultimately does a disservice to the films atmosphere alongside a burning desire to crank up the volume to sonic levels only dogs can hear whenever the dybbuk is near— this is the main contributing factor to let you know this film is definitely attached to the Blumhouse banner.

However, Dave Davis carries the film with vulnerability, and his performance coasts through confidently in his portrayal of a man conflicted in his religion. After leaving the Orthodox Jewish community to live a secular life after the anti-Semitic attack he’s clearly mentally at war with his beliefs—it’s the age old conundrum of ‘how can my God be benevolent and all-loving when they allowed this tragedy to happen?’ As Yakov spends the time figuring out Ruben’s life, he faces a similar story. The Vigil looks at the concept of inherited trauma in the historically oppressed Jewish community, and how that pain manifests from generation to generation, using the figure of the dybbuk to work through that idea. In contrast to his confusion, his religious practice is also what Yakov needs to come through the other side, donning his Teffilin—two black boxes placed on the forehead and upper arm containing Torah passages— to overcome the source of evil. It feels fresh to be seeing something like this, as someone raised Catholic in rural UK I can safely say I’d never seen a Teffilin in my life, its been refreshing this year to see so much horror cinema that has been divulging cultural and religious practices that some audiences might never have come across.

Keith Thomas’ debut is assured, with themes that run deeper than its generic ‘creepy house’ imagery. The film’s time and location confines benefit Yakov’s night of terrors to maintain a neat and snappy pacing that balances moody, psychological torment with visual frights. While the film’s overarching message is clear its often hard to hear over the obnoxiously distracting sound design that pulls from all the worst parts of the Blumhouse canon.

The Vigil is out in select cinemas on July 31st

by Chloe Leeson

Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here

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