The Vigil (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): One very disturbing night in a Jewish household

“The Vigil” is a little spooky Jewish horror film which shows us its cards a bit too early and too much in my trivial opinion. While there are a number of effective moments which will surely unnerve you more than once, the movie often feels heavy-handed in case of connecting two very different personal traumas under its dark and insidious background, and it is also quite distracting at times due to its several blatant tactics for terrifying its audiences.

After the prologue part which explains us a bit on the traditional Jewish vigil ritual for the dead, we are introduced to Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), a young Jewish lad who recently left his former Orthodox Jewish community in New York City for some unspecified personal reason. During the opening scene, we see him having a meeting with several other former Orthodox Jewish community members, and they are all willing to give him some help and support, but he is still nervous and unsure about what to do next for his new life.

Shortly after the meeting is over, Yakov notices that a member of his former Orthodox Jewish community is waiting outside. Despite becoming more nervous as a result, he eventually decides to confront this dude, and this dude turns out to have an offer Yakov cannot easily refuse. He urgently needs someone to keep vigil over some recently deceased person from midnight to dawn, and all Yakov will have to do for receiving 400 dollars is simply staying alone with the body of this recently deceased person during that short period.

Although he is not so eager to do this job, Yakov eventually agrees to do it because he really needs money to support him right now, and he gets to learn a bit about this dead person as going to the house belonging to this dead person and his surviving wife. He was a very old man who was incidentally a Holocaust survivor, and he managed to restart his life in New York City after the World War II, but then he somehow became very distant to his children and grandkids while adamantly leading a reclusive life along with his wife, who has been not that well during recent years due to Alzheimer’s disease.

When Yakov enters the dead man’s house, he does not feel that comfortable as watching the dead man’s body brought into the living room, and the dead man’s wife does not help him much while looking as senile as expected. Her debilitating mind does not seem to be fully aware of her husband’s passing yet, and she just mindlessly goes upstairs shortly after being introduced to Yakov.

Once he is left alone with the dead man’s body, Yakov is relieved by the following silence, but, of course, that does not last long. As time goes by, he finds himself getting more nervous and awkward than before, and then, what do you know, he begins to hear and see strange things. At one point, he sees a mysterious entity lurking at a certain dark spot inside the house, and that turns out to be a mere prelude for more disturbing stuffs to occur here and there around him.

Because his mind has still been struggling a lot with a certain trauma he experienced not so long ago, Yakov initially wonders whether he is having a sort of nervous breakdown right now, but the situation becomes more intense and terrifying for him, while the night seems to be going forever outside. It looks like there is something, yes, evil inside the house, and he becomes more convinced about that after belatedly discovering what the dead man had been obsessed with till his eventual death.

Relentlessly cornering its hero more along its simple plot, the movie also bombards us with lots of stuffs we can expect from your average haunted house horror flick. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein makes sure that the interior spaces of the house in the movie feels constantly stuffy and ominous via dim lighting and lots of shadows, and the score by Michael Yezerski frequently grates upon our ears for generating more intensity and insidiousness on the screen.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that our terrified hero eventually comes to confront his own trauma as well as whatever has been menacing him, but the following moment is rather anti-climactic despite the efforts from director/writer Keith Thomas and his crew members. In case of the origin of Yakov’s personal trauma, it is inarguably tragic to say the least, but it still pales before the dead man’s unspeakable plight in the past, and the movie accordingly fails to generate any dramatic resonance between these two dark plot elements.

Anyway, the few main cast members of the film are believable in their solid acting. While Dave Davis is suitably cast as an increasingly neurotic hero with considerable mental vulnerability, late Lynn Cohen, who passed away in last year, holds her own place well beside Davis, and several other cast members including Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Nati Rabinowitz, and Fred Melamed duly fill their small spots at the fringe of the story.

In conclusion, “The Vigil” is rather thin and dissatisfying in terms of story and character development, but it is not a total dud at all as filled with a substantial amount of dread throughout its short running time (89 minutes), and I appreciate the efforts and skills put into the screen. As far as I can see from the overall result, Thomas is a good filmmaker who does know how to engage his audiences via mood and ideas to be explored, and I hope that he will soon move onto better (and scarier) things to come.

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