“The Vigil” is a modern Jewish-American horror movie, if only in the sense that it hints at personal problems—of familial and tribal guilt and responsibility—without ever transcending genre tropes that were established in “The Exorcist.” I want to dismiss this sort of horror pastiche because “The Vigil” often feels like more of what recently came before it in “The Unborn” from 2009 and “The Apparition” in 2012. But what makes “The Vigil” so frustrating is that it feels like a product and not a reflection of its subject’s identity crisis: shy guy Yakov (Dave Davis) starts seeing things after he, needing money, assumes the role of a “shomer,” or a “watchman” who’s paid to sit overnight with a dead body if the deceased has no available friends or loved ones, as an opening title explains.
Yakov’s so broke that he can’t even afford his antipsychotic medication, so the ghosts that visit him in “The Vigil” may or may not be all in his head. He sees them anyway, through the perilously under-lit gloom of the Boro Park house that once belonged to Rubin Litvak (Ronald Cohen), now dead. Rubin has a wife, by the way, and she’s even played by the great Lynn Cohen, but this is Yakov’s show. “The Vigil” is ostensibly about his struggle to maintain a personal connection with a religion that he broke ties with, under conditions that are only negligibly explained. But Yakov submits to these neurotic trials anyway, because “for thousands of years, religious Jews have practiced the ritual of ‘the vigil’,” as the movie’s solemn opening crawl tell us.
And yet: the most personal thing about “The Vigil” and its consideration of Yakov’s feelings is how murky everything is. He’s steeped in clichés about how secular Millennials see the world—they text and FaceTime with each other, sometimes in the dead of night!—and how that shapes their limited perspective.
Yakov is often quite literally in the dark, and his path is only sometimes illuminated by the words of older Jewish men like his therapist Dr. Marvin Kohlberg (Fred Melamed), who appears as a disembodied voice over the phone, and Rubin Litvak, who emerges as a silvery-grey blur on an old CRTV, rambling about demons and such. There’s also the pushy but maybe sincere Hasidic Rabbi Shulem (Menashe Lustig), the guy who got Yakov this white elephant of a gig; Shulem basically leaves the picture once he’s set everything up. Oh, and Mrs. Litvak, who warns Yakov that he should get out of her house, but then changes her mind, and says that it’s too late to get out because whatever’s inside will now follow him outside. So, I guess she counts, too.
Point being: Yakov’s the guy, and we see this later on when he inevitably arms himself with his tefillin, a protective link to the past (as described in Exodus) that he wraps around his forearm and forehead before delving deeper into the Litvaks’ home. A synthesizer score complements Yakov’s transformation and confirms his re-emergence as an avenging hero, like Jewish Rambo, only with a leather strap instead of a Bowie knife.
This sort of paint-by-numbers horror narrative barely scratches the surface of the heavy issues it alludes to, especially during the above-mentioned flashback, which suggests that Yakov doesn’t know how to synthesize his dual identity as a Jew and an American. Yakov presumably wants to get away from his past, but repression is, unto itself, only so interesting.
Parts of “The Vigil” hint at a deeper consideration of passing and self-loathing during early conversations with Shulem; I especially like that they only part ways once Shulem asks Yakov if he’s going to be ok, and Yakov throws the word “ok” back at Shulem like an unexpected bill … then Shulem sends it back with a shrug: “Ok!” Beyond that, there’s only a blank murkiness about the ol’ Litvak house, for reasons that are also rather vague.
I imagine the sheer emptiness of “The Vigil” is deliberate, a sort of invitation for viewers to project their own problems onto Yakov, the empty sap. But for that to be true, you’d have to find something scary about Yakov’s haunted behavior. His limbs crack unnaturally and he sometimes buckles under the strain of an unseen presence, whose hands bulge out of the walls like the ones in “Repulsion,” and whose face is as featureless as a reflection. I didn’t see anything in the dead air of “The Vigil,” but maybe you’ll find something if you squint?
Now playing in select theaters and available on digital platforms.