Credit: IFC Films
by Molly Adams Featured Film Genre Views

The Vigil | Keith Thomas

February 22, 2021

The Vigil isn’t without its minor grievances, but its willingness to navigate new horror territory is most welcome.

Since the birth of the horror genre, especially its occult and supernatural sub-genres, Christianity has had the market fairly cornered. Rife with ubiquitous symbolism and substantial lore to draw upon, horror writers have had plenty to keep them occupied, with the devil and exorcisms being only the tip of the iceberg. Even when writers don’t engage with the religion behind the imagery, allusions are typically enough, with theology twisted to fit whatever the horror demands. Unfortunately, these religious horror films often run screaming down the same well-traveled road: a white, middle-class family is set upon by a demon, who is subsequently vanquished by the unshakable power of white Christian faith. It’s a blueprint that The Exorcist established so well that few have bothered to alter it in any meaningful way. Into this stale subgenre comes writer-director Keith Thomas and his film The Vigil, a 90-minute chamber horror following Yakov, a young man who has abandoned his Orthodox Jewish community and lost his social safety net. Exiled and struggling with his new life, Yakov agrees to serve as a shomer, a spiritual role that involves staying with a deceased person’s body and reciting prayers the evening before their burial. While the job seems at first to be a godsend, the night quickly takes a dark turn, forcing him to confront the trauma that made him leave his community in the first place.

Now, none of that context is to suggest that The Vigil is anything revolutionary. Viewers’ mileage may vary with the few sins of horror that the film commits: there are big chunks of exposition, unoriginal jump-scares, and the now-familiar tease of “is it all a metaphor for grief/trauma/mental health?” that has become inescapable since The Babadook. Still, as a tightly-paced narrative that sticks to its single-setting conceit, The Vigil manages to both maintain suspense and find room for directorial flourishes that make it decently more memorable than half of the trashy horror schlock that’s dumped in any given year. For his part, Thomas deploys absolutely harrowing sound design that cuts quickly to the bone, and if his script leans on tropes in places, it’s only because, well, they work

What really stands out here, though, is the originality of Thomas’ monster: the mazikim, a demon drawn from Jewish folklore. While there are modern horror films that have previously depicted Jewish theology, most don’t meaningfully engage with it, and where Christian-centric horror typically and endlessly opine on the nature of faith and battles between good and evil, the genre’s take on other religions has historically mostly used them as little more than gimmicks or, worse, to prop up Christian narratives (looking at you, The Seventh Sign). The Vigil, instead, uses the mazikim to interrogate Jewish intergenerational trauma and the often inescapable nature of historic and personal tragedy. To a degree, these themes would be simply impossible to access in other films, and it’s to Thomas’ credit that The Vigil treads such new and fertile ground. Even if his execution of the concept can be banal in places, it’s easy to forgive Thomas his cliches — The Vigil has brought something new and exciting to the religious horror subgenre, and leaves viewers with hope that other artists might pick up Thomas’ gauntlet and continue in the creation of diverse new horror narratives.