Horror films can be a very effective form of therapy. That might sound counter-intuitive, but a good horror film rooted in metaphor and examining humanity can be extremely cathartic. The most effective films in the horror cinema canon take tragedy and suffering and put a supernatural face on it, turning our inner demons into literal ones that we can see, hear, and ultimately confront. The Vigil, the debut feature by writer/directer Keith Thomas, is a prime example of this kind of fear therapy in its best moments.
Yakov (Dave Davis) is a young man dealing with a troubled past. He’s recently left his Hasidic Jewish community after a personal tragedy, something he’s coping with through the help of both a support group and medication. He’s approached by someone from his old life who wants to hire him as a shomer: someone who keeps vigil over the body of a recently deceased person. In need of money, he agrees, but almost immediately once he starts his vigil he starts experiencing a series of supernatural events and becomes the target of a demon known as a mazzik.
There isn’t much plot to The Vigil, which is likely an entirely conscious decision. The whole of the narrative takes place over the course of about six hours, and considering that Yakov is unconscious for a good portion of that, the film just about feels like it happens in real time. There’s an immediacy to everything, a kind of rawness that facilitates easy emotional investment. We learn a surprising amount about Yakov in a short amount of time, and it’s very easy to enter into a sympathetic vibration with him.
The film also is primarily limited to one location: the house where the body is being kept until it’s picked up for burial. Aside from one highly ill-advised and ill-fated trip out, Yakov’s movements are limited to a claustrophobic setting whose details seem to keep subtly shifting. The beauty of it is that it’s hard to tell if that’s due to something physical, the ever-changing shadows, or if it’s just paranoid perception. Yakov finds out he has nothing stable to anchor his time during the vigil, but that also extends to the audience as well. It gives the film a nightmarish energy that’s both hypnotic and dreadful.
But the core of The Vigil isn’t the setting but the underlying metaphor of the mazzik. The demon is said to attach itself to people who have experienced tragedy, feeding off of their pain. Its head is on backward, cursed to forever look into the past. The first day you encounter it, you must defeat it or it will haunt you for the rest of your life. While the metaphor here might be a bit too on the nose, I don’t recall a more accurate summation of how trauma can distort our lives.
The mazzik turns out to be an insidious and nebulous presence for most of the film, manifesting itself more through twisted perceptions than anything else. In fact, Yakov initially thinks he’s hallucinating because of his anxiety or the medication he takes for it. But halfway through the film, and thanks to one immaculately constructed jump scare, it becomes obvious that he’s being haunted by something otherworldly. The mazzik itself, at least what we can see of it, is grotesque and terrifying because of how it appears human-like but is foreign enough to confuse our brains as to what we’re seeing. Much like trauma itself, the appearance of the mazzik is designed to make our brains short-circuit and inspired a kind of macabre obsession. The mazzik even takes over the score for most of the movie, with Michael Yezerski’s expertly-crafted horror soundscapes serving as its traveling companion. The demon’s screams are literally another instrument in the soundtrack’s arrangement.
However, all this set dressing and atmosphere would be nothing if the mazzik didn’t have a sympathetic victim, and Dave Davis is absolutely perfect in the role. Possessing a vulnerable stare and a highly emotional and expressive face, Davis puts himself so completely into Yakov that at times the film seems almost like found footage. Yakov’s personal tragedy is relayed in flashbacks, and his more innocent and affected appearances in those are a sharp contrast to his more troubled contemporaneous self. Davis’ performance is dense and complex, a fully-realized inhabiting of character. Its his compelling face and bold, almost surgical coloration of Yakov’s personality that helps draw the viewer in and keep them intensely gripped into the narrative.
Another point in the film’s favor is how writer/director Thomas draws heavily on Jewish folklore and belief for the backdrop of his story in a way that’s both respectable and vital. Unlike something like The Possession, which slapped some Jewish spiritual concepts on a generic horror script, The Vigil makes the spiritual traditions and collective cultural experience of Judaism an essential part of its metaphor. Part of Yakov’s anxiety is facing the world outside his Hasidic community, and the deceased he’s watching has a personal tragedy stemming from the Holocaust that drew the mazzik to him in the first place. It gives the film an additional level of applicability, allowing it to not only talk about personal trauma but cultural trauma, as well.
For as effective as the film is, especially given its limited budget and canvas, Keith Thomas does occasionally stumble in his approach to telling his story. Fans of horror will likely spot several obvious and telegraphed tropes right out of the gate, and several of the scenes will end up having a slight air of predictability. In terms of horror cinema building blocks, there’s nothing unusual or unexpected here. Thomas is effective at arranging his pieces artfully, though, and his scares and thrills are no less terrifying simply because he’s constructing them with common materials.
The core of The Vigil, however, isn’t the fear but the experience. This is a journey, not a thrill ride. Anchored by a remarkably effective performance by Dave Davis and underscored by an intense atmosphere of shadow and tragedy, it’s nothing short of hypnotic.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+
The Vigil can be streamed through Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play.