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Jewishness – especially its historical traumas – has flowed freely into the DNA of horror, from the German expressionists to Roman Polanski and William Friedkin, even Darren Aronofsky. But there have been relatively few culturally specific Jewish horror films, and this is where Blumhouse Productions, with its eye for a canny hook, comes in. The Vigil, by debut writer-director Keith Thomas, doesn’t examine rising antisemitism, so it doesn’t have the same contemporary punch as Get Out had regarding Black Lives Matter, or The Invisible Man for #MeToo. But, set mostly in one house in the Orthodox community of Boro Park, Brooklyn, with reams of Yiddish dialogue, it is all the same an authentically Jewish and reasonably competent chiller.
Dave Davis plays a lapsed member of the Hasidic community, attending a support group for some unspecified past shock, called upon to act as a shomer and wait overnight in vigil on a corpse to protect it from evil. The deceased is Mr Litvak, “a good man but a little weird”, who survived Buchenwald but attracted a malevolent spiritual parasite in the process: a dybbuk, a demon from Jewish folklore now uninterested in the man’s dementia-stricken wife and looking for a vulnerable new host. Tuber-fingered and with a backwards-facing head, it symbolises the inability to escape the past.
Invoking the Holocaust as genre-film prop is dicey territory, something the first X-Men film barely got away with. The Vigil pulls it off, thanks to its sworn-in Jewish affinities – this is surely the sole film in which the tooling-up montage features head and arm tefillin. So it’s a pity that elsewhere it largely reads rote from scary-movie scripture, leaning in rather scattershot fashion on jump scares, sometimes hammy optical effects and a now-canonic strain of techno-horror (this dybbuk isn’t afraid to hammer its mobile-phone subscription). In doing so, it misses the chance to give the demon a Babadook-sized psychological stature. But it still just about puts the id in Hasidic, thanks to spiritually atmospheric cinematography and a twitchy, expressive performance from Davis, who resembles Riz Ahmed, and wards off evil with that most Jewish of charms: heroic self-deprecation. As he sums up the supernatural onslaught: “It’s a lot!”
• The Vigil is in cinemas from 31 July.
Source: The Guardian
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