The Vigil [TIFF19 Review]

For a long time growing up, horror films were not for me. I would run from the room as my uncle would try and force me to watch one, and then out of the blue, that all changed and I ate up as much as horror as I can get my hands on. So halfway through The Vigil, a scare happened that made me question myself why I do this to myself, time after time.

A few years back, I caught the Blair Witch premiere at TIFF and it terrified me, caused me to have trouble sleeping. That, plus the fact that as we walked out of the Ryerson theatre, we were greeted with giant replicas of the wooden bundles from the film. Not to mention I heard random baby cries on my walk home at nearly 3 in the morning. I believe that was the last scariest film I’ve seen at TIFF, but even Baskin comes to mind as well. That was until The Vigil.

Since the film is a horror film, some may argue it’s already a bit of a niche film, but Keith Thomas’ feature film debut is also rooted in Jewish culture and mysticism. So much so, that even the cast like Dave Davis (playing the lead, Yakov) became closer to his own Jewish roots during the process of the film.

Yakov has only recently joined the secular world and is in the process of transitioning to a new lifestyle. One night after a support group meeting, he runs into a rabbi from his old community asks if he can act as a shomer for one night. To act as a shomer is to follow a Jewish practice in which one looks over the body of someone who is recently deceased. Sometimes it’s a family member, sometimes it becomes a paid job and others can be a shomer for the night.

Yakov agrees to the job as he may not have enough money for rent this month, and as he arrives, he is warned by the deceased’s wife that he won’t do. And thus, we are given a wonderful ghost story, that also doubles as terrifying and moving. Mr. Litvak, the recently deceased, had survived the holocaust. And the pain of that time period had stuck with him, and other entities also stuck with him and kept their claws hooked to him. Those things make a reappearance once Mr. Litvak passes away. And it’s up to Yakov to face his own demons, fight his own past and attempt to move forward and beat this entity.

The film plays with the darkness in the house, it plays tricks on his and your mind and nothing is ever knowingly real or not real. It keeps you guessing up until the moment it shakes you to your core. The cast is incredible, but it relies on Dave Davis who holds onto every piece of the frame he’s in and shines with it, as well as Lynn Cohen who scares us at first, to only become endearing over time.

A friend of mine recently reiterated a common theme that some seem to forget, the monster in the film isn’t usually an actual monster but rather a representation of something. The Vigil is an excellent example of that statement and example of why sometimes our past is what hurts and holds us back the most. A superb film that terrified me on my walk home, just as a great horror film should.

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