By Matt Taylor |★★★★|
It’s a strange time to be going to the cinema at the moment. Limited screenings, social distancing, and compulsory mask-wearing makes the experience a little different to what we’re used to (even if such precautions are necessary to keep us all safe). There’s also the fact that many big movies have had their theatrical releases delayed, or even cancelled entirely – but this has left a gap in the market for smaller films to fill. One such film is The Vigil, a horror movie that’s brimming with genuine, goosebump-inducing terror, and it’s a perfect reminder of why we love the movies so much. Cinemas are back baby, and there’s no better way to get back in.
The Vigil marks the directorial debut of Keith Thomas, and if his work here is anything to go by, he is absolutely one to watch in the coming years. His film follows a young man (Yakov, played by Dave Davis) who’s pulled back into the Orthodox Jewish community he’s tried to leave behind when he’s asked to be a shomer for a night – a person who keeps watch over someone’s body before their burial. However, as the night draws on, it becomes clear to Yakov that he is not alone in this house – that something malicious, something unnatural, is preying on him.
What’s perhaps most interesting about The Vigil is how refreshing it feels.
‘It’s particularly invigorating to see a religious horror film that isn’t centred in Christianity – the film’s focus on Judaism allows for a new perspective that many audience members may be unfamiliar with.’
It feels bold and new, and it’s also incredibly interesting to learn about some seldom-discussed aspects of Judaism, even if we are learning about them through a horror movie. The casual integration of Yiddish into the mostly English dialogue also feels fresh, and speaks to the more open and inclusive style of horror filmmaking that continues to build momentum throughout the industry.
But of course, we’re here for the scares, aren’t we? Don’t worry – The Vigil has you covered. After I left, I found myself sitting in my car for a good ten minutes, alone and in silence, trying to process what I’d just seen. I’ve been trying for days now to figure out quite why it affected me so much, and I’ve yet to come up with a solid answer. Perhaps it was the near-empty auditorium, or the late-night screening, or the darkness that wasn’t present when I’d walked into the cinema. Maybe it was the fact that this was the first film I’d seen in a cinema since February, and it was bound to send me reeling after such a spell away.
‘Or maybe, as I feel is most likely, The Vigil is simply a film that is evil in its very bones. ‘
These types of films are rare, but they certainly exist; the credits roll on them, and you feel as if you’ve invited something into your home that absolutely should not be there. The longer I sat with it, the more unclean I felt – and believe me, that’s no easy feeling to achieve. Thomas’ film feels nasty, dirty, and evil in and of itself, and that’s something that’s down to a mix of Thomas’ excellent direction, a brilliant mix of scares, and a fantastic lead performance from Dave Davis.
Part of what The Vigil does so well is to mix the two different types of horror we’ve become accustomed to in recent years: it merges the jump scares and the more drawn-out suspense with ease. Thomas’ sense of timing is perfect,he knows just how long to let the tension build before he releases it, resulting in some of the most fantastic scares of recent memory. His direction feels confident and controlled; he often leaves us searching the frame for something we think might be in the background (a decision that has a fantastic payoff in the film’s final few seconds), always unsure of what we can actually trust. This mixing of jump scares and tension may not suit everyone, but for my personal taste it worked a treat. The scares were also helped along by the fact that the Mazzik itself genuinely is the stuff of nightmares. Its horrific design is brilliantly integrated into the film, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to imagine it’s behind you as you leave the screen.
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Dave Davis taking the lead of The Vigil. We immediately buy into Yakov as a man; he’s a broken, struggling guy who’s just doing his best to get by. David uses Thomas’ minimalist dialogue to excellent effect, using his body movements to sell much of the terror . He isn’t afraid to show his emotions to us (somewhat refreshing for a male horror protagonist), and this allows Yakov to be innately more relatable to an audience. His brokenness also ties into the film’s biggest theme; it’s a movie about the trauma we inherit throughout our lives, about how we come to terms with it, and about how we ultimately must do our best to let it go. While admittedly nothing new, the way these ideas are baked into the character and emotional impact of the film results in them hitting home, and hitting hard. Horror blockbusters can take note: this is how you make an indie horror movie in 2020.
Verdict: While it might lose its way a tad as it wraps things up, it’s impossible to deny that The Vigil is an excellent piece of horror cinema that deserves a huge audience. Its haunting scares are paired with impactful themes, and the whole affair is tied together beautifully by Dave Davis. In creating a film that is at once so horrifying and emotional, Keith Thomas has certainly marked himself out as a fantastically exciting new voice in horror.