Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: 2021 is about half over, so we’re looking back on the best movies released this year that we didn’t review.
Yakov (Dave Davis) is adrift. Having recently left behind the Haredi sect of Orthodox Judaism in Brooklyn, he’s treading water and going to a support group with others who have struck out on their own from the traditions that have shaped them since birth. The world of cell phones and diverse socialization is new to him, and the landlord is lurking, ready for this month’s rent. So when Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), a friendly face from before, pops up with an offer for some easy money being a fill-in shomer for an evening, Yakov is, like so many horror protagonists, driven by necessity into the reach of danger.
Being a shomer is a tradition in Judaism that goes back millennia. You sit with a corpse until the time comes for its burial, saying prayers of protection throughout the night, guarding the deceased against bodily desecration and spiritual interloping. Modern eyes understand the former and minimize the latter—exactly the situation that allows for the supernatural to seep in. The deceased in this case, Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen), is plagued by the Mazzik, a special kind of malevolent spirit, invisible to sight; it feeds on trauma and amplifies its corrosive reach across generations. Yakov is in for a fraught night.
Anyone who’s spent time fleeing an oppressive religious background will relate to The Vigil. It’s about the alienation of removing yourself from a toxic or abusive situation, and the simultaneous feeling of being tied to this monstrous thing that’s defined your entire life. But the film’s horror branches into other areas, too. It’s cosmic, the stuff of ghosts, curses, and possession, of folklore born from unexplainable tragedy. The cruelest terror the film taps into, though, is the exploitation of misplaced trust. There’s a note of gym-teacher hubris in Reb Shulem, who plays around with the divine in the course of another’s life to prove a point, because it’s “for their own good.”
None of this would work nearly as well were it not for Davis. For a while, he’s the only living person on screen, and it’s riveting. Provoking empathy without pity is no easy task, but the actor and his director, Keith Thomas, pull it off, creating a new kind of horror protagonist by tapping into a vulnerability that goes beyond the normal tropes of the genre. There is, for example, a moment involving a phone call with Yakov’s therapist (national treasure Fred Melamed) that would be terrifying even if there weren’t also a gradual metamorphosis afoot. We sit shomer with this character, bound by tradition to something bigger than we can comprehend. Buckle up for a wrenching journey.
Availability: The Vigil is currently streaming on Hulu. It can also be rented or purchased from various digital services.