Thursday, February 25, 2021

Watching over the dead can be creepy


The distinguishing characteristic of The Vigil, a horror movie by  director Keith Thomas, involves its milieu. The movie takes place in the world of Hassidic Jewry, centering on a young man (Dave Davis) who has broken from his religious community. Davis’s Yakov gets drawn back to his roots when a rabbi (Menashe Lustig) offers him an unusual job. He must become a "shomer," one who keeps watch over a corpse to ward off evil spirits on the night before burial. Desperate for funds, Yakov accepts. In this case, the corpse belongs to Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen), a Holocaust survivor who had isolated himself from the religious community in which he lived. Davis's Yakov spends a harrowing night in Borough Park trying to ignore the corpse that lies beneath a sheet on a platform in the living room. Everything about the movie feels creepy: Litvak's weird widow (Lynn Cohen), the noises that begin unnerving Yakov, and, of course, a demon. We later learn that the demon became part of Litvak's life after a horrific event at Buchenwald. With Litvak gone, the demon needs fresh meat. That would be Yakov, vulnerable because he blames himself for the death of his younger brother at the hands of anti-Semites. Thomas keeps the special effects to a minimum in a movie that's more creepy than scary. Eerie yes, but The Vigil also can feel dull and self-conscious in its attempts to both benefit from and avoid standard horror tropes. 

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