The Sins of the Past Are Monstrous in the Terrifying New Movie 'The Vigil'
A former Orthodox Jew fights off an evil spirit while watching over the dead in this truly scary new film.
The demonology of Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—is complex. Demons and malevolent spirits are all over the place, but their purposes differ based on what a person believes. In Judaism, it's rare for a spirit to be truly evil—instead, many are beings that share (or don't share) the land you live on, or have been sent to a person by God as reminders or punishers. The spirit that haunts the home that provides the setting for Keith Thomas's terrifying debut The Vigil, now available to rent, is a mazzik, normally an umbrella term for a few different types of creatures; in this film it's reimagined as a man-like form with its head turned backwards, perpetually gazing into the past. It's a truly frightening image that Thomas uses sparingly, expertly building up its biggest scares. It's also a potent visual metaphor for a trauma that can't simply be exorcised, a catharsis that is never fully reached.
Yakov (Dave Davis) has recently left his Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn and is struggling to make a living on the outside, slowly teaching himself how to use a smartphone and getting rejected from job after job. When Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), an old friend from the community, asks Yakov to act as a shoymer, watching over the body of a now-deceased Holocaust survivor for one night, as the man's elderly wife (Lynn Cohen) is too dementia-addled to do it herself. Yakov, in need of cash to make rent, agrees. Spooky, but a dead body is just a body, right? Unfortunately, a mazzik attached itself to the old man while he experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust, and it plans to find a new host once the night is up.
At around 90 minutes (far and away the perfect movie length), The Vigil is compact and thrilling, building up a palpable dread in its first half that it mostly follows through on in its second, soundtracked by some of the most upsetting bone-cracking and grinding noises you will ever hear. Davis is perfectly hapless in his ill-fitting shirts and preoccupation with flirting (badly, bless him), and Cohen in particular is frightening enough all by herself, pinging back and forth from lucid, horrible descriptions of her husband's obsession with his demon, to equally scary moments of muttering indifference. The premise lends itself well to a horror story of a demonic haunting, but what director Thomas does with this idea goes much further than the film itself. As a horror movie, The Vigil is tightly-paced and wickedly scary, but as an extended metaphor and physical working-through of a very specific, widely shared trauma, it's remarkable.
To choose a mazzik, a less malevolent entity than, say, a dybbuk (a possessing spirit of the type more familiar to Hollywood), feels deliberate, as the presence of a mazzik is often more of a given. They're around, they don't require exorcising, they're things that exist alongside us in the physical world. In The Vigil, the mazzik is obviously a very cinematic being of fear and violence, but it's also not something that can simply be made to go away. To work through a trauma—and both Yakov and the body of the man he's watching over have been living with parallel traumas rooted in their pasts—is not the same thing as erasing it completely. When Yakov and the mazzik have their final showdown, during which Yakov is obliged to become a vessel for the belief system he has left behind, his end goal is not to destroy it. The mazzik's twisted head looks back forever into the past, just as working through grief, whether it's the shared grief of the Shoah or a personal one rooted in the casual antisemitism of the modern world, demands remembrance to achieve.
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