Film review: The Vigil a haunted house thriller with modest ambitions

Dave Davis and Menashe Lustig, The Vigil
Damon Smith

LET there be light... less blurring of foreground details and a more satisfying payoff to confidently sustained tension in writer-director Keith Thomas's modest supernatural horror.

The Vigil unfolds predominantly on three floors of a dimly lit house in Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York, which is home to vibrant Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities.

The religious practice of the shomer – typically a family member or friend who stands guard over the body of the deceased and recites the Psalms to ward off unseen evil – provides Thomas with a neat dramatic conceit to mine for jump-out-of-seat scares in the unending hours before the light of dawn banishes paranoia and fear.

Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein languishes in those shadowy nooks and crannies for extended periods, inviting us to imagine horrors lurking in the darkness.

Australian composer Michael Yezerski's heavy-handed score repeatedly encourages us to prepare for cheap shocks, which Thomas largely avoids, to his credit.

However, our reward for steadily cranked tension is meagre, including a nightmarish showdown between forces of good and evil that is so low-key, you feel certain it has to be a false dawn with a concealed last-gasp twist. Alas, the ace remains stuck up Thomas's sleeve after the end credits rolls.

Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) has tentatively stepped away from his Jewish roots following the death of his younger brother Burech (Ethan Stone). He is medicating to cope with post-traumatic stress and makes regular visits to therapist Dr Kohlberg (Fred Melamed) to plumb his deep well of residual guilt.

Following a support group meeting with other Jews in transitional fazes of their lives, Yakov meets former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), who has a job proposition.

He is willing to pay Yakov $400 to act as a shomer for Holocaust survivor Rubin Litvak (Ronald Cohen).

"A good man, a little weird," the rabbi cryptically observes about the deceased, whose wife (Lynn Cohen) is in the grip of dementia and is unfit to stand guard.

As Yakov begins his five-hour shift, he discovers alarming evidence of a demonic presence called a Mazzik (Rob Tunstall).

"It's playing with you, the way a cat plays with a mouse," whispers Mrs Litvak as the malevolent presence torments Yakov with memories of his little brother.

The Vigil is a haunted house thriller with modest ambitions and writer-director Thomas largely achieves them.

Davis's central performance, lit by the glow of a mobile phone screen or a flickering candle, wrings out the heartbreak between ominous creaks and groans while Cohen lends gravitas to her frail guardian of expository plot.

A disappointingly low-key finale clings limpet-like to convention and leaves a basement door ajar for a potential sequel.

THE VIGIL (15, 90 mins) Horror/Thriller/Romance. Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Lynn Cohen, Malky Goldman, Ronald Cohen, Ethan Stone, Rob Tunstall, Fred Melamed. Director: Keith Thomas

RATING: 5.5/10

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