Yakov is not exactly thrilled to be in this dark and eerie house; nor is he in the best of mental health, after leaving the Hasidic community. Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen) unsettles him with her look of pity, as if he, too, is already dead. He puts in earbuds and settles into his electronic music. The body is behind him, laid out under the sheet by the window. Don’t turn your back, we’re thinking. As every horror fan knows, at some point that sheet is going to move. The question is when – and the mark of a good horror director is how, and how well, he delays.
The Vigil is the debut feature of Keith Thomas, and it’s fresh on many levels. Thomas took a Masters in religious education at rabbinical school, and he has delved deeply into Jewish lore to find a supernatural force worthy of his story. He didn’t want a dybbuk because other movies have used these malevolent spirits.
The Vigil offers instead an extremely obscure spirit, known as a Maasik, or Mazik. For the purposes of the film, Thomas invents a mythology: this one feeds on the memories of the living. That opens the film up to all the horrors of the 20th century, not just Yakov’s own bad memories.
If The Vigil has weighty metaphors to stimulate the brain, it works on other parts of the body as well, namely the spine. Keith Thomas uses all the tools: dim lighting, good use of empty space, ill-defined shapes in the corner of the room, shock cuts and slow reveals.
There are new tricks, too: Yakov has a phone but it doesn’t help. The Masik is across the latest technology. Most of all, we have Dave Davis’s lovely performance as a man scared out of his gourd. It’s not uniformly terrifying; just most of it.