The Vigil (CREDIT: IFC Midnight)

Starring: Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Lynn Cohen, Malky Goldman, Fred Melamed

Director: Keith Thomas

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Creepy Creatures Who Have No Concerns About People’s Mental Health

Release Date: February 26, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

The Vigil is the sort of movie that tells you exactly as much setup information as you need to know in case you’re not a member of the community where it takes place. I would pitch it as a sort of Orthodox Jewish spin on The Babadook, with a few elements of The Grudge thrown in as well. At the heart of the film is the role of a “shomer,” a person who fulfills the task of looking over the body of a recently deceased person until it’s buried. Typically, this is performed by a family member, but in cases where that’s not an option, there can be shomers hired from outside the family. That’s where Yakov Ronen’s (Dave Davis) story begins when his old rabbi (Menashe Lustig) shows up asking for a favor.

Yakov used to be a member of the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, but he’s recently opted for a less rigidly religious existence. But the community isn’t quite done with him, particularly in the form of Rabbi Reb Shulem, who offers him a few hundred bucks to be the shomer until dawn for an old man named Mr. Litvak whose widow (Lynn Cohen) lives alone and supposedly suffers from Alzheimer’s. Yakov could certainly use the cash, though he’s not sure it’s worth it since he’s been trying to cut off all contact with Reb. Ultimately, though, he takes the job, but it ends up being a lot more than he bargained for when evil spirits that had been haunting Mr. Litvak start turning their attention towards Yakov.

As in The Babadook, the supernatural forces in The Vigil also work metaphorically as a manifestation of the main character’s psychological state. The specifics of who or what these spooky beings really are is never specified, but ultimately that’s beside the point. I can imagine that Jewish folkloric creatures like dybbuks and the ghosts of the Holocaust served as inspiration. But what is most important here is the anxiety that Yakov is experiencing as a young man riddled by memories of guilt and trauma who’s also attempting to move forward in his life by learning fairly common but frequently challenging behaviors like learning how to talk to girls. Serving as a shomer on this particular night is like an hours-long panic attack manifesting as his worst nightmares come to life. It’s a gauntlet that could potentially lead to hospitalization or even a descent into Hell, or it could instead make him the strongest Yakov he’s ever been if he manages to somehow get through it. And those of us watching are liable to experience some secondhand catharsis.

The Vigil is Recommended If You Like: The Babadook, Spirits sneaking into technology, Cathartic horror

Grade: 4 out of 5 Shomers