The Vigil is a horror movie mining Jewish culture effectively

Yakov (Dave Davis) front of the body of Mr Litvak in The Vigil. Picture: Supplied
Yakov (Dave Davis) front of the body of Mr Litvak in The Vigil. Picture: Supplied

The Vigil (MA15+)

3 stars

Having binge-watched Unorthodox on Netflix at the start of the COVID shutdown, I feel like I'm probably an expert on Jewish culture.

So when I read that this new horror film is set around the Brooklyn neighbourhood familiar from that series, I felt like I was on familiar terrain.

Unorthodox was a horror of another kind, about loveless marriage and loss of freedom.

This is horror of the good old-fashioned kind, and produced by experts in the field.

Jason Blum and his team at Blumhouse Productions have built themselves into a mini-studio of low-budget horror films that almost always make a tidy profit.

This means they can experiment with ideas and give first-shot opportunities to new talent with more confidence than the bigger Hollywood studios.

Thus, we have The Vigil, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Keith Thomas who has only one short film in his resume.

What Thomas does have, though, is a unique perspective for religious-based horror, having attended rabbinical school.

And so, for those of us thoroughly used to the familiar Catholic tropes horror - the cross, the rosary, the priest - will enjoy Thomas's refreshing mining of Jewish culture.

As the film opens we meet former Orthodox Jew Yakov (Dave Davis) at a support group for others who have left the religion.

He runs into a cousin who knows he needs work and tells him about a gig serving as Shomer at the home of a recently deceased Holocaust survivor and his wife (Lynn Cohen), who has Alzheimer's.

A Shomer sits the overnight vigil with the body of the recently deceased until the body can be taken away for burial.

When there are no family or friends who can do the job, their job is to keep away the evil spirits.

As his night begins, we can be fairly sure of where this is going.

And it does, with the dead body belonging to a Dr Kohlberg (Fred Melamed), who has a Maasic - cousin to the dybbuk, a spirit from Jewish folklore - that attached itself to him while he was in Buchenwald.

It has been feeding on his pain ever since.

This is very much a one-man show, with Davis working through the emotions, through the scares, the things that go bump in the night. His performance is excellent.

While the Jewish mythology (some of it based in tradition, and some Thomas's own invention) is a fresh take, he also depends heavily on the classic tricks of of the genre that Blumhouse films like Insidious, Ouija, and Paranormal Activity employ, with jump scares, dark lighting and bass notes rumbling under your seat.

That's the expected horror.

The other horror going on is internal to the already unstable Yakov, fuelled with the memories of his younger brother's death and his own resulting PTSD.

Production Designer Liz Toonkel does interesting work turning the suburban mundane into the creepy, aided by Michael Yezerski's deliberately provoking score.

This story Horror given a fine Jewish flavour first appeared on The Canberra Times.