Decisions about leaving (or joining) a faith are filled with consequences. It could mean leaving a community that has provided years of fostering, or it might create the risk of eternal damnation on the off chance that whatever organization happens to be right on the money. Keith Thomas’ debut feature, The Vigil, explores a single turbulent night for a man who has recently left his ultra-Orthodox Jewish upbringing, but is swept back into it at the behest of a friend. It’s a horror film held aloft by a strong lead performance, despite sometimes falling victim to the worst trends in the genre.
Dave Davis stars as Yakov, a former Hassidic Jew who’s currently in a support group for other recently departed Hassids. He still struggles to understand new technology — like smartphones — which makes for awkward flirting when a woman in his group tries to give him her number for a coffee meet-up. Fragmentary flashbacks show how Yakov left the faith after a violent hate crime against him and his younger brother, with the details gradually being doled out throughout.
Though Yakov is adjusting well to his new life and freedoms, he is pursued by a rabbi from his old life, Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), who has been pestering him to return to the ultra-Orthodox religion — or at least attend services. But when Yakov sees the rabbi outside his support group meeting, it’s not about rejoining the faith. Shulem is desperate to find a shomer — a person who watches over a dead person’s body and recites psalms in order to keep evil spirits at bay. Family members often take the position, but a Holocaust survivor has just died, and his elderly wife suffers from dementia, so they’ll need to find a paid shomer.
Yakov’s familiarity with the task, combined with Shulem’s hope
Keith Thomas, who also wrote The Vigil in addition to directing, started his career as a medical researcher before transitioning to novel writing. His experience conducting research with those suffering from dementia helped inform his writing for Mrs. Litvak. He also brings a novelist’s conception of thrills to his horror film. Many of the early frights in The Vigil aren’t seen — just heard or imagined. Thomas’ previous work writing thrillers required readers to fill in many of the details, and here he encourages audiences to fill in the blanks, to chilling success. However, the first-time director also relies on tired horror clichés; every scary moment is punctuated with a blast from the score, and over time, these stings get larger and larger until they involve choirs of screaming singers. It’s all too much, and it’s a shame that Thomas didn’t trust his own skills more.
Though The Vigil is frightening enough and intriguing in its avoidance of more common Christian tropes, the real focus is Davis’ lead performance. He’s electrifying as a person soldiering on despite his own psychic trauma, which may or may not be the source of things he sees and hears in the house. The Vigil is still wobbly on its legs, but a strong lead performance makes it a horror film worth seeking out.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15