Starring Dave Davis and Lynn Cohen
Written by Keith Thomas
Directed by Keith Thomas
The interpretive viewing of religious iconography is often enough to elevate even the most conventional of horror movies into something altogether terrifying for people of faith. The visceral martyrdom of Saint Maud resonates with earnest terror for Catholic audiences and quaking crucifixes are planted firmly in the chasm between those who contend The Exorcist to be the scariest movie ever made and those genre edge lords who decry its acclaim. The Warrens are beacons of hagiographic virtue. The Dark and the Wicked, one of 2020’s most terrifying releases, is an eminent and thunderous descent into lives fractured by impiety. These specters and haunts, however, have been enduringly evangelical. Keith Thomas’s astonishingly confident debut The Vigil subverts decades of Christian symbolism, upending the tradition of fallen angels for something altogether unique; a Mazzakin.
In the Hebrew tradition, a Mazzakin is an invisible demon that plagues the living, intending to inflict considerable harm on those they torment. It’s a shame, then, that for as profoundly frightening as The Vigil is, its distinct perspective is never anything more than a novelty. The Mazzakin is frightening, but its bag of tricks is nothing we’ve never seen before.
Dave Davis stars as Yakov, a young man who left his Orthodox community following a cryptic tragedy. After leaving a weekly support group with other members, one where his inexperience with the world– and his new phone– is prepossessing enough to secure him a date for the following morning, he meets Reb (Menashe Lustig). Reb asks Yakov to keep vigil over a member of his former community, watching his body for five hours in the dead of night where, according to the Midrashic tradition, the deceased’s soul will hover over the body until it is interred. Desperate for money, Yakov agrees, and so begins his terrifying descent in hell as he comes to contend with the Mazzakin in the home, one preternaturally attached to the deceased and eager for a new target.
The early goings are slow. Shomer, male guardians, are encouraged to meditate and pray and are prohibited from eating and drinking in the vicinity of the deceased. Yakov plays on his phone, texts Sarah (Malky Goldman), the woman he met earlier, and generally feels uneased, desperate to pop an Atvian, settle down, and get through the night. The atmosphere is rich and terrifying, tangible and textile, with every sound and glimpse of movement acting as early precursors for the danger to come.
Thomas fills out the bourns with softened vignettes of body horror. Nails are ripped off, hair is swallowed, and glass eviscerates skin– all within the parameters of the PG-13 rating, of course– though violence is otherwise kept to a minimum. Yakov is never quite sure whether what he’s seeing is real or not, though instead of being disorienting and scary, it’s confounding for audiences. There’s not enough access to the inner machinations of Yakov’s mind to understand why, after several demonic assaults, he refuses to leave the home. A third act development answers the questions, but it feels too little, too late.
Moreover, despite the rich possibility of its premise, the Mazzakin has seen one too many movies, often appearing alongside a sharp screech of the audio before slithering away into the dark. Though the design work is stellar, his scares are all too familiar. Bathsheba, Paimon, and Pazuzu have done it already.
Early directorial quirks distract, including an increasingly common filmic technique to superimpose phone screens– including texts and web searches– over the filmed image. As Yakov wanders the quiet corners of his Shemira, the audiences’ eyes are drawn toward his endearingly puerile “How to talk to women” searches instead of the did-it-just-move body on the table or the furtive Mazzakin hiding in the dark. It’s cute, yes, but it’s not particularly scary.
Problems are compounded in the final act with Yakov’s grief inexplicably supplanted for Mr. Litvak’s (Ronald Cohen), his watch. Though point-of-view remains consistent, a journey that once belonged to Yakov suddenly shifts ownership, culminating in a finale with little thematic resonance to the tapestry of grief and regret woven earlier. Though striking in look, the denouement’s images are foreign, specters in their own right, unfamiliar both literally and metaphorically to the audience. The key players are impossible to place, and while it’s easy enough to piece together what it all means, it’s the conclusion to an entirely different story. It’s rendered all the more baffling when the perspective lurches back toward Yakov, ending definitively with him. The finality is incongruous with the preceding actions. His story, despite what the final frame contends, feels incomplete
Quibbles aside, The Vigil is nonetheless successful in what horror’s fundamental purpose is: to scare. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t come together quite as cohesively as Thomas’s assured voice initially suggests– the early milieu of defected Orthodox Jews has a level of verisimilitude the movie never quite achieves again– though they are easily forgiven when the final product is this unrelentingly terrifying. The Mazzakin, despite the familiarity of its scare tactics, is a masterwork of rich design and mythology, a demon with the staying power to match most horror heavyweights. The piquancy of the Orthodox perspective, too, while never taken quite as far as it could have, is nonetheless enough to imbue The Vigil with more urgent potency than most of its ilk.
The Vigil isn’t an entirely successful horror enterprise. Though the scares are strong, the mythology is underexplored. Like most horror outputs, The Vigil wants to scare more than anything. Its most enduring frights, though, are those that are grounded in something altogether unique. In those moments, it endeavors to do more than just scare; it threatens to captivate.
The Vigil is unrelenting in its scares, if too familiar in its execution. Nonetheless, this Jewish horror fable is still likely to shake you to your core.