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SYFY WIRE Keith Thomas

Why 'The Vigil' is the first great horror film of 2021

By Jon O'Brien
The Vigil - Dave Davis sitting in front of a corpse

Considering their reputation as 'dump months,' January and February seem to have over-delivered on the horror front in 2021. We've already had Chloë Grace Moretz fighting chauvinism, Nazis, and airborne gremlins in the fun monster mash-up Shadow in the Cloud. And Nicolas Cage continued to embrace the genre that best suits his wild-eyed persona in the gonzo animatronic slasher Willy's Wonderland. Even the reboot that no-one really asked for, Wrong Turn, managed to breathe new life into the unfathomably long-running hillbilly franchise.

However, only The Vigil, which is finally arriving in the States this month (it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September 2019 and has been on other Netflix territories for months), can lay claim to being the first truly great horror of the year. Cleverly released to coincide with the celebration of deliverance from evil known as Purim (Feb. 26), it's also perhaps the first truly great horror to be so firmly entrenched in the Jewish faith.   

As first-time director/writer Keith Thomas recognizes, Judaism has largely been an "untapped well" for big-screen scares, particularly in America. The most notable recent examples — the Paz siblings' Cloverfield-esque found footage Jeruzalem and supernatural thriller The Golem, and the late Marcin Wrona's dybbuk tale Demon — all hailed from Europe. You have to go back to 2012's Sam Raimi-produced The Possession for the last time that Hollywood mined Jewish folklore for frights. But hot on the heels of Netflix's critically-acclaimed drama Unorthodox and Seth Rogen time-traveling dramedy An American Pickle, The Vigil looks set to bring Hasidic culture further into the mainstream.

Co-produced by Jason Blum's prolific stable, the film centers on Dave Davis as Yakov, a cash-strapped Brooklyn native ("I'm having to choose between medication and meals") struggling to deal with the recent departure from his Orthodox Jewish community. When offered the chance to make a quick $400 by his persistent former rabbi — he has to serve as a shomer and simply watch over a Holocaust survivor's corpse for the night to ward off any evil spirits — the blatantly troubled man reluctantly accepts.

Unsurprisingly, Yakov's impromptu role as a shomer doesn't run as smoothly as he'd hoped. He has to contend with Mr. Litvak's dementia-ridden widow (Lynn Cohen, who sadly passed away last year) whose habit of creeping around her dilapidated house provides most of the jump scares. There's the mysterious cell phone interactions in which a malevolent presence impersonates both Yakov's psychiatrist and potential love interest. Oh, and then there's the small matter of a videotape which reveals the deceased had been menaced by an insidious demon (known as a Mazzik) ever since his escape from concentration camp Buchenwald. And it now needs a new host.

Thomas certainly has the criteria to make what's been described as the "Jewish Exorcist" (although Jacob's Ladder, Possession, and Angel Heart were apparently the key influences here). Before taking the director's chair for the first time on 2017 witchcraft short Arkane, he studied the religion’s mythology at a New York rabbinical school. Thomas also drew upon his experiences in medical research, and of nursing homes, in particular, when it came to handling Mrs. Litvak's Alzheimer's.

Yakov's mental state is also a cause for concern throughout. As we see in several brief flashbacks, the watchman was traumatized by an incident involving his younger brother, leading him to repeatedly question his sanity as the night's events become increasingly disquieting. Does he really cough up a mysterious critter? Did someone or something genuinely capture and then send footage of him sleeping on the job? And is the demonic figure he's forced to confront simply designed to represent those demons he's been wrestling in his own head?

Thomas keeps us guessing for much of The Vigil's succinct 89 minutes, aided by a pitch-perfect lead performance that deserves to thrust relative unknown Davis into the spotlight. The one-time SYFY movie regular (Leprechaun's Revenge, Ghost Shark) thoroughly convinces as a man racked by survivor's guilt yet still utterly terrified at his latest brush with death. It's a quietly expressive turn that mirrors that of his namesake Essie's in The Babadook — another psychological chiller about a grief-stricken individual haunted by a boogeyman.

It may be a cliché, but The Vigil's inherently ominous setting is just as much of a character as those who inhabit it. Lit by nothing but candles, constantly flickering lamps, and Yakov's iPhone screen, the Litvaks' abode makes for one effective haunted house. Little wonder that Thomas grounds almost all the action there, only venturing out into the darkness of the New York streets for a wince-inducing scene which explains why Yakov simply can't just walk out the door.

Meanwhile, Matt Davies' bone-crunching sound design and Michael Yezerski's inspired blend of pulsing electronica and traditional Jewish instrumentation ensure The Vigil sounds as creepy as it looks. It's just a shame that most viewers won’t be able to experience its visual and audio thrills surrounded by the darkness of a cinema screen.

Of course, the buzz surrounding The Vigil has inevitably focused on its Jewish angle. From the conversations in Yiddish between Yakov and Reb Shulem (the eponymous star of semi-autobiographical Hasidic Jewish drama Menashe) to the tefillin the former wraps around his arm in preparation for his climactic showdown, Thomas immerses his horror in the traditions and rituals of his faith. Yet ultimately its main theme, letting go of the past and moving forward, is universal.

It's slightly ironic, therefore, that Thomas' next gig is very much rooted in the early 1980s. Yes, Stephen King was so impressed with The Vigil that he tasked its fledgling director with helming the latest remake of Firestarter, which will also mark Zac Efron's horror debut. The notoriously tricky-to-please author hated the 1984 adaptation starring a young Drew Barrymore. However, the resourcefulness and flashes of originality on display in what's turned out to be Thomas' calling card suggest he'll be much happier the second time around

The Vigil is playing in select theaters and is available on digital platforms now. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.