The Vigil (3 stars)

The Vigil

New York's Orthodox Jewish community provides an interesting context for the latest Blumhouse horror

The Jewish ritual of shemira is mined to bloodcurdling effect in the debut feature from writer-director Keith Thomas, which was acquired by esteemed horror outfit Blumhouse Productions (Get Out, The Invisible Man) following its 2019 Toronto festival premiere. It teams haunted house traditions with something more substantial, rooting its story in the real world of hand-to-mouth existences, mental illness and cruel twists of fate.

The Vigil begins as a group of young New Yorkers who have extricated themselves from the Orthodox Jewish religion discuss the difficulty of adapting to conventional society. Of particular interest to us is Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) who is visibly struggling, defensively describes failing to secure a job, and admits having to choose between medication and meals.

He's being pursued by Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig, star of 2017's excellent Menashe), who is trying to draw him back to the faith and offers this desperate man an enticing sum ($200, bargained up to $400) to sit the titular vigil in the home of a recently deceased member of their Borough Park community. As a guardian of the dead (known as a shomer), it's Yakov's job to watch over the body during the night, to provide protection and comfort to his departing soul, ahead of burial. Unluckily for him, a demon has got in there first.

The Vigil is a strong calling card for its first-time director; Thomas knows how to crank up the suspense, and the combination of Yakov's twitchy disposition and fragile psyche – at first, he assumes the supernatural stirrings are all in his head – and the moodily shot and lit domestic setting generates ample unease. And, by keeping the covered corpse perpetually in view, there's no hope of getting some respite from the tension. In his believably anxious efforts, lead actor Davis is joined by veteran Lynn Cohen (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), playing the dead man's wife, who is sharper than she seems.

The extreme creepiness eventually gives way to a less awe-inspiring dependence on modern horror's bag of cheap tricks, yet, for the bulk of its duration, The Vigil is frightening enough. By embracing commercial scare-tactics it may find a wider audience, but its real appeal is the way it shines a spotlight on the practices and challenges of a little-seen, somewhat sealed-off world, creating a credible backdrop against which terror can impactfully unfold.

In cinemas from Fri 31 Jul.

The Vigil

  • 3 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 29min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Keith Thomas
  • Cast: Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman
  • UK release: 31 July 2020

A young Hasidic Jewish man must face down an evil spirit when he is entrusted to watch over the body of a recently deceased member of his orthodox community.