June 24, 2024
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‘The Vigil’—First Mainstream Jewish Horror Film—Explores Loss of Life and Faith

When I was seven years old, my mother rented “Poltergeist” for me to watch, mistakenly believing the clown doll on the VHS cover designated it a children’s movie. Far from being scandalized, I was instantly hooked on horror. Possessed little blond children, cannibalistic intellectuals, psychotic superfans or a particularly vicious shark named after Steven Spielberg’s lawyer—I loved them all. My love of horror has spanned the blockbusters and obscure cult films, the classics to contemporary indies, and the books on which many famous horror movies are based.

I’ve been Jewish longer than I’ve been a devoted student of this genre, so I welcomed my introduction to “The Vigil,” the world’s first mainstream Jewish horror film, with much of the dialogue spoken in Yiddish. Written and directed by Keith Thomas and produced by scary movie factory Blumhouse Productions, “The Vigil” stars Dave Davis (a New Jersey native) of “The Walking Dead” as Yakov Ronen, a formerly chasidic Jew who is haunted first emotionally, and then literally. I welcomed, too, my chance to speak personally with both Thomas and Davis, who enriched my understanding of the film with their insightful reflections and motivations for making and starring in the film (more on that later).

With a tragic air and perpetually despondent countenance, Yakov is an immediately attractive horror protagonist. He’s introduced to us as an “off the derech” (OTD) Jew who frequents OTD support groups with fellow communal apostates. We get the sense that Yakov’s only recently defected, as made evident by his awkward fumbling when a woman in his group shows interest in him and his subsequent Google search of “how to talk to women.”

Yakov doesn’t only lack interpersonal relations, but also funds—so he reluctantly accepts a paying gig to be a shomer, a watcher of a deceased person’s body until it’s ready for burial. The offer comes from Reb Shulem, Yakov’s former rabbi, and the body belongs to Mr. Litvak, a Holocaust survivor who settled in Boro Park after the war.

“It’ll be quiet,” Reb Shulem tells Yakov of the job at hand. (It wasn’t.) When Yakov arrives at the deceased’s home, his widow Mrs. Litvak, who suffers from dementia, takes one briefly lucid look at him and adamantly announces he’s not fit for the job and should leave immediately. (He doesn’t).

What follows is a long night of eerie sounds, apparitions, and an especially spooky video that plays in the basement where Yakov first encounters the spectral mazzik, which I won’t say any more about here other than hint at its insidious connection to the deep wellspring of pain within humans and their inability to escape their past. Through sporadic flashbacks and as Yakov loses his already-tenuous grip on reality, we’re acquainted with the source of Yakov’s particular pain and the reason he left the fold.

This is the first movie written and directed by Thomas, a former clinical researcher at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine and National Jewish Health. Now a writer for film and television who previously collaborated with James Patterson, Keith’s clinical and personal interest in death and life after it is interwoven into much of his work, like his 2018 novel, “The Clarity,” and now, “The Vigil.”

“I wouldn’t say I have a morbid fascination with death, but I find it to be an intrinsic part of our lives in that there’s a beginning and an end, and birth is just treated with much more reverence,” Thomas explains. “I’ve been at the births of all my kids and it’s incredibly powerful. But I’ve also been at someone’s bedside when they passed, and that was just as transcendent and intense.”

The movie is an effective vehicle for that idea and Thomas’ abiding interest in trauma—the way we inherit it generationally and how it personally affects us.

“Once we decided to set the film in Boro Park, of course the Holocaust took on greater relevance,” continues Thomas on that aspect of collective trauma that hovers in the background of the film. “Why is the community even there in the first place, and why are they so insular? But the Holocaust is not an easy thing to talk about or put onscreen, so we decided to limit that aspect to one person’s experience with it, and also not show too much of it.”

“The Vigil” was filmed in Boro Park, Williamsburg and the Bronx; scenes often attracted a large crowd of interested onlookers, especially given that the film portrays their own community.

“It was wild the way people gathered,” recalls Davis. “People were super curious about the camera. It was a real movie making scene and to someone who’s never seen that before, and especially to a community that doesn’t see technology like that, it was definitely unique for them—and a unique experience for me, as well.”

Fortunately, several people involved in the production are either practicing chasidim—like Menashe Lustig, of the 2017 semi-documentary “Menashe”—or former members of various chasidic communities who now work in the arts, and they were able to communicate with the crowd, who mostly just had a lot of questions.

These current and former chasidim, along with two of the film’s producers who are Modern Orthodox Jews with roots in Boro Park, comprised a solid team of professionals intent on making every aspect of the film as authentic as possible. From the way Davis affected a former chasid’s pronunciation of English and certain vignettes from former chasidim’s entry into secular society to the production design, Thomas says they took pains to paint everything “as authentically chasidic as they could.”

“There’s a ton of stuff you don’t even see in the film but which help create the atmosphere of the [Litvak] home, like the things in the drawers, and then there’s the candy in the jar on the coffee table, which is very specific to Boro Park, and the mezuzahs and the paintings on the walls,” he explains.

Davis, who worked diligently with current members of Footsteps to approximate the appearance of a formerly chasidic Jew tormented by his loss of faith and inability to easily acclimate into the greater world, appreciated his that his comfort level with putting on tefillin grew as a result of starring in “The Vigil.”

“I had only tied tefillin one time in my life prior to this film and I found that a really powerful experience,” says Davis. “I grew up knowing that my great-grandfather tied tefillin every day, but it was a routine totally separate from my own experience of Judaism. It became a very personal part of filming for me because I never wanted to think of it as a prop or a costume piece, but something that was natural and earned, in a way.”

So many horror movies utilize religion to tell scary stories; Christian iconography permeates many of the most popular horror classics, like “The Omen,” “Carrie,” “The Exorcist” and “The Conjuring,” just to name a few. It’s nice to finally see some Jewish symbolism in a horror movie which, Davis says, comes back to his preoccupation with death.

“A lot of horror films are technically not horror films,” says Davis, who also warns me that he put on his metaphorical nerd hat to delve into the nuance of horror sub-genres. “Slasher films are technically suspense thrillers because horror has to have a supernatural element to be horror. And if there’s ghosts or demons, that automatically means an afterlife. It’s a real thrill for people to think that there may be a bad side in the beyond that’s not just about meeting your sweet little grandma in the afterlife, but about something in the shadows that wants to scare you.”

Toward the end of our interview, I felt compelled to ask Davis, who has starred in other, straight-to-TV horror films featuring leprechauns and sharks (he even had a bit part in “Jeepers Creepers III”), which of all the horror antagonists he’s encountered in his work is the most frightening.

“I’d have to put ‘The Vigil’ head and shoulder above the other ones,” Davis says with a laugh, but then grows serious. “There’s nothing scarier than reality and feeling like you can’t have control over yourself and your own mind. So more than the boogeyman or something under your bed, it’s being afraid of how quickly the world can change. Now more than ever, everyone is aware of that.”

This film will be available in select theaters and video platforms on February 26.


Tova Cohen is a professional fundraising writer, a contributor to Tablet Magazine and other online publications, and a high school essay coach. Contact her at [email protected].

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