Billed as a “Jewish horror movie,” Keith Thomas’ “The Vigil” doesn’t dive very deep into theology or even specific traditional superstitions in its tale of a long night for a protagonist watching over a recently deceased Orthodox man’s body. Nonetheless, the cultural context adds novelty to an effectively creepy, small-scale chiller that does a nice job eking suspense from its simple story and limited setting. A first feature for novelist-turned-director-scenarist Keith Thomas, this has modest prospects likely to play out primarily in home formats, but the unusual slant on genre themes could spur interest from viewers not normally attracted to horror films.
Yakov (Dave Davis) is a young man we first meet in a Brooklyn support group for those who’ve left close-knit Hasidic communities and are taking baby steps into an unfamiliar secular society. He appears more fragile than most, having made his break in part (we eventually learn) due to a little brother’s death that left him guilt-plagued and traumatized. As yet unemployed, cash-poor enough that he’s having to “choose between medication and meals,” he gets an offer he can’t refuse from Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), who is lurking outside the meeting building — not, for once, to pressure Yakov back “home.”
Instead, he dangles a tidy sum for a few hours’ work as a “shomer,” a person who keeps vigil over a corpse to protect the soul from any evil spirits. Yakov has done this before for others without surviving family members or other volunteers to handle the task. His charge this time is one Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen), a Holocaust survivor who duly married and had children but evidently spent recent decades as a recluse. Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) is still alive and on the premises, but Reb Shulem says she’s too far gone with dementia to be much help, or hindrance.
However, when Yakov reluctantly takes the paid gig to sit overnight in the Lustigs’ dimly lit Borough Park home until the morticians arrive, Mrs. L. seems quite alert — and vehement about the visitor leaving immediately for his own safety. Once she toddles off, however, the Reb reassures our hero before departing himself.
With the corpse lying under a sheet on a gurney in the living room, things are already disquieting enough before noises overhead, wavering lights and apparent hallucinations begin to seriously trouble our none-too-stable protagonist. A video playing in the basement has Mr. Litvak discussing an ancient demon that attached itself to him at Buchenwald, then fed on his painful memories ever after. Recognizing a new “broken person” to glom onto, this entity proves its insidiousness by posing as others (including Fred Melamed as a psychiatrist) and contacting Yakov via cellphone. When the terrified shomer makes a run for it, he learns in a very hard way that the demon is not about to let him go so easily.
Like many such movies, “The Vigil” leans heavily on jump scares, and is arguably more effective during its tense buildup than in the climactic events. But to his credit, Thomas eschews laying on too many literal-minded creature depictions or supernatural FX, trusting that what we don’t see is generally scarier than what we do. And the Lustigs’ gloomy abode, where lamps that flicker out are scarcely brighter than the candles that replace them, could hardly be a darker environ. Anything might be (and usually is) hiding in the shadows here, whether a scuttling cockroach or a spectral ghoul.
Davis (“Bomb City”) is excellent at conveying his vulnerable character’s ever-rising anxiety level without going over the top. Veteran stage and screen thesp Cohen brings great presence to the only other substantial role here. The most conspicuous element in a modest but well-turned tech/design package is Michael Yezerski’s active score, which frequently assures us there is indeed cause for alarm even when nothing much is happening on screen.