Horror/Suspense is a popular genre. For some strange reason, many of us enjoy being scared out of our wits from time to time.
It explains the popularity of fun houses and scare houses around Halloween and the ghost stories we all loved to hear when we were kids huddled around a camp fire.
Hollywood wasted no time capitalizing on this guilty pleasure, beginning all the way back in the silent era with movies like Nosferatu (1922).
Those movies evolved into ghost stories, monster movies, slasher movies, you name it. They shared the goal of making you scream out loud and dread walking back home in the dark.
There have been a lot of these movies over the years. Filmmakers have gone to the proverbial, creative well many, many times.
The tried-and-true plot devices have been used again and again.
In recent years, the blood and gore quotient has been ratcheted up in an ever-escalating attempt to gross audiences out with increasing graphic detail. As such, many contemporary horror films are arguably more disgusting than scary.
It’s noteworthy when a movie like The Vigil comes along and decides to skip all the obligatory gory special effects and get back to the basics, instead. Even more noteworthy, it manages to do that quite successfully.
It begins with a creepy premise; one rooted in reality and religious belief.
The vigil we’re talking about here involves the Orthodox Jewish ritual of watching over the body of a deceased member of their community. Many might consider it an inherently spooky experience, watching over the draped body of a recently deceased person until it can be taken away in the morning for burial.
Typically, a family member attends the body. When that isn’t possible, someone can be hired to fill in.
In The Vigil, a young man named Yakov Ronen is offered $400 to be the shomer watching over the body of an elderly Holocaust survivor.
The man’s widow is elderly, frail and on the verge of Alzheimer’s. He knows he’s in for what might become an unnervingly solitary night.
Yakov is an interesting character. He’s a struggling member of the community undergoing group therapy.
He’s on medication. And he is in the process of assimilating into modern society, learning the ropes of his newly-acquired cell phone and struggling to develop the social skills of communicating and dating in an unfamiliar world.
He’s hesitant to accept the Rabbi’s offer, but he needs the money to pay the rent.
The plot and character setup are smooth and streamlined. Soon he’s in the dark, cramped, living room of a stuffy old rowhouse, sitting in a chair, facing the eerily covered dead body barely illuminated in the dim light.
He sits alone, as the clock ticks away. Strictly speaking, the use of his cell phone is forbidden, leaving him stranded in a shadowy darkness.
It’s not a great place for someone with emotional issues who is in the midst of counseling and treatment.
The strange sounds, flickering lights and scurrying cockroach on the carpet next to him make him aware that his struggle to not come unraveled might be a tough one.
What’s brilliant about The Vigil is that we’re never sure what’s real and what’s only taking place in Yakov’s head.
We know that his mental state is compromised but we wonder how much of what’s happening is really happening.
Either way, it’s unnerving and scary; even more so because the lines are blurred.
As the story plays out, you begin to wonder whether the house is actually at the mercy of a terrifying evil presence that preys on pain and suffering, moving from victim to victim. The evidence definitely points in that direction.
There is plenty of backstory in The Vigil. It opens with a jolting scene of a woman being executed by a young man holding a pistol to her head, at the insistence of a soldier wearing a Nazi uniform.
It gives us some insight into the old man who has passed away, and where all this began.
Another flashback is a horrifying moment from Yakov’s life that sheds light on his emotional pain and suffering. The past and present are skillfully interwoven as the events unfold.
As mentioned, The Vigil is old school when it comes to style and approach.
The lighting, cinematography, sound effects and music prove that you don’t need an abundance of special effects to make people cringe with white-knuckle suspense.
It is movie drowning in ambience.
The repeated shot of the sheet-covered body in the muted living room light is enough to send chills up your back.
We’ve been conditioned to expect it to suddenly come to life as is often the case in other movies. The possibility that it actually might, at any second, keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Writer/director Keith Thomas is clearly a horror movie student and connoisseur. He has a keen sense of what works when things go bump in the night.
Even when it seems the story is verging on being preposterous and surreal, his main character’s crumbling mental state more than offers a plausible explanation.
Thomas knows how to play his audience. This isn’t your garden variety scary movie.
It’s a delightfully creepy fun house ride that drags you in and doesn’t let you go.
As you might expect, it’s a story that leans heavily on its main character.
Dave Davis, a veteran actor very familiar with the nuances of this genre, plays Yakov to perfection.
You feel his angst. His fear. His terror. We’re with him every terrifying second he struggles to survive—mentally and physically-- until daylight comes.
The Vigil is a surprisingly good movie.
From a production standpoint, it gets the maximum bang for the buck telling a simple, largely one-character story of terror in the confines of limited space.
The movie makes his dilemma palpable and real, complete with a tangible fear factor level that harkens back to the horror classics.
The Vigil is available now in select theaters, digital and VOD.