The Vigil

14/01/21

Netflix

Writer/director Keith Thomas makes his directorial debut with this creepy, low-budget ghost story, a tale steeped in Jewish folklore and set in the Boro Park community of New York.

Yakov (Dave Davis) is a young man attempting to escape from the confines of his orthodox upbringing, whilst simultaneously struggling with the memories of a recent tragedy. He’s also fairly impoverished so, when he’s approached by his former rabbi, Reb Shulman (Menashe Lustig), with the offer of a night’s paid work, he cannot really afford to say no – even though the job requires him to fulfil the role of a shomer, keeping a solitary vigil over the recently deceased.

The dead man is Mr Litvak and, soon enough, we’re in his suitably creepy house and Yakov is left alone, except for the unsettling presence of Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen), an elderly woman afflicted with dementia and prone to popping out of the woodwork at unexpected moments. She tells Yakov that, all his life, her husband was followed by a dybbuk, an evil spirit intent on twisting the mind of its chosen victim. The problem is, now Litvak is dead, the creature is seeking a new victim…

At first, Yakov is dismissive. After all, the woman doesn’t really know what she’s saying… does she? And yet, there are some very strange noises coming from upstairs… and that shrouded body isn’t moving…. is it?

You get the picture. It has to be said that the film’s first half is deliciously unnerving, aided by the dark, claustrophobic set, as well as Davis’s enigmatic performance and Michael Yezerski’s nagging electronic score. The best scares are provided by things that are barely glimpsed, by noises, shadows and Thomas’s clever misdirection. But of course, this isn’t enough to fuel an entire film, so, in the second half, there’s an attempt to delve into the psychological aspects of the story, to probe the spectres from the past that fuel both the mythical creature that haunts the Litvak’s home and Yakov’s own inner demons.

While this is certainly more interesting territory, it isn’t handled as assuredly as the more conventional jump-scares from earlier. The result is a loss of momentum, and the final confrontation, when it comes, lacks conviction. This is a shame, because Thomas has me perched on the edge of my seat for much of the journey. All in all, this is an impressive first film and I look forward to seeing where this director goes next.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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