Friday 31 July 2020

Shivers: "The Vigil"

The new Blumhouse title The Vigil very nearly does for Orthodox Judaism what The Exorcist did for Christianity. Writer-director Keith Thomas has composed a taut nocturnal parable centred on the figure of the shomer, the watchman assigned to stand guard over the bodies of the deceased before burial and say the prayers required to keep evil spirits away. Here, the task falls to Yakov (Dave Davis), a depressive alcoholic emerging from a personal tragedy and the crisis of religious confidence it provoked: he steps into the low-lit front parlour of a recently departed Holocaust survivor for rent money, and gets in up to his neck. The question Thomas poses is whose demons are doing the circling. Though there's an exotic quality to the action, in that this is the first Blumhouse release to unfold chiefly in subtitled Yiddish, the movie otherwise adheres usefully to the tight framework of this shingle's better productions. It's one man being tormented on a single set (and kudos to production designer Liz Toonkel, bringing out the creepiness lurking in old people's chintz) over one long, dark night of the soul.

That makes The Vigil as beneficial a showcase for the previously unnoticed Davis as, say, 1408 was for John Cusack or Locke was for Tom Hardy. This set-up obliges Yakov to plumb the depths of his existential despair before summoning any remaining drops of strength and courage, reconnecting with his faith, and launching a rousing third-act comeback. The faintest glimmers of a very dry, recognisably Jewish humour become evident in the dark, as per Yakov's mid-film summary of events to the shrink he's kept on speed-dial (an unseen Fred Melamed): "It's a lot." Mostly, you're struck by the minor miracle of a popcorn horror movie that invokes the spectre of the Holocaust without straying into exploitation territory. A lot of the genre titles released in the lockdown period didn't lose anything for becoming streaming options, as they were always headed that way, but between DoP Zach Kuperstein's keen compositional sense and the carefully configured lighting, The Vigil was clearly intended to play to excitable Friday and Saturday night crowds on the big screen: its sound design (especially the cracking bones of the restless corpse) rattles round inside your head, and even Thomas's one conventional jumpscare is very skilfully set up.

The Vigil opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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