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THE VIGIL ****

Directed by Keith Thomas.

Starring Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Lynn Cohen.

Horror, US, 89 minutes, certificate 15.

 

Released in the UK on DVD by Vertigo Pictures on 4th January and available On Digital now.

 

The Jewish tradition of the shomer provides the base premise for debut director Keith Thomas’s The Vigil. To be a shomer is to sit and keep watch over a deceased body the night before burial, to comfort the deceased’s soul and protect it from evil. It is a position taken up reluctantly by Yacov, a young man who has recently turned his back on the orthodox strain of his religion. Barely able to afford the cost of living in the U.S. having to choose between food and medication, he accepts to sit and keep watch over the body of an elderly figure from the community. It may seem like an unsettling position to an outsider but it also sets Yacov on edge almost immediately as the creaking, flickering nature of the house as well as the deceased’s confused, wandering widow soon coalesce into an increasingly supernatural series of events that threaten Yacov’s already tenuous grip on his own sanity and soul.

 

It is a simple premise that is ideally suited to its low budget and limited locations. Thomas manages to make a virtue of these limited resources without calling attention to them. Instead, he effortlessly draws the viewer in with his handling of character and situation. As Yacov, Dave Davis immediately convinces as a man recently cut adrift in a society that he is less than prepared to navigate; talking to women and using a mobile phone mark out his naivety and inexperience with matters that many take for granted. He is equally ill at ease when he is brought into contact with the faith that he once dedicated his life to, if it is just the simple act of conversing with once close orthodox friends or the act of shomer itself for example. When events take a sinister, more threatening turn the audience is sucked in as the film increases the horror of the situation as well as the recent past that has caused Yacov to lose his faith.

 

Its combination of cultural mythology filtered through with ghost story tropes make THE VIGIL reminiscent of the recent HIS HOUSE. Parallels between the two films are there to be seen even if you are only familiar with HIS HOUSE after one viewing. Not that this is taken as a disadvantage in this films case, especially after its limited cinema release earlier this year in that brief summer lull of the Coronavirus epidemic, a fact that should stave off any detractors, if there are any. Small in scale it may be but THE VIGIL manages to provide more than enough that is memorable in its own way of scaring its audience, forcing them to face up to the more immediate horrors of racism and xenophobia.

 

There is an unnerving sound design that kicks in as soon as Yacov enters the house that continues from thereon, accentuating every creak and moan, the rustling of a sheet covering a corpse and the possibility of a breath being pushed out from under it. The visuals match the unnerving soundscape and distorted soundtrack, Polanski’s REPULSION is echoed in one sequence whilst both visuals and sound are combined together in one punishing sequence where Yacov tries to flee his situation. It all adds up to a compact yet memorable film that promises an interesting career for Thomas, if this look at a specific cultural horror is anything to go by.

 

Iain MacLeod

 

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