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February 23, 2021 1:14 pm

Set in Hasidic Brooklyn, Supernatural Horror Film ‘The Vigil’ Tackles Jewish Mysticism and Faith

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Lead actor Dave Davis in a scene from “The Vigil.” Photo: IFC Films.

In a Jewish-themed supernatural horror film set to debut Friday, a man is confronted by an evil entity as he provides overnight watch to a recently deceased member of his former Hasidic Jewish community.

“The Vigil,” from IFC Films, addresses themes surrounding Holocaust survivor guilt, the notion of “sheydim” (spirits or demons in Jewish mythology), and the struggles some Jews face in fitting into Orthodox communities.

The film, which first premiered at the 2019 Toronto Jewish Film Festival, is writer-director Keith Thomas’ feature debut.

Thomas has a masters in religious education from Hebrew University College in New York and said that during his studies, he overheard two men at an Orthodox synagogue talking about a shomer (watchman) who abruptly left his “post” because he was scared. That story inspired the writing of “The Vigil.”

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Thomas told The Algemeiner, “There’s an old writer’s adage that says, ‘Write what you know.’ When it came time for me to draft the story of what I envisioned would be my first film as a director, I stepped back and took stock of what might make a unique story. What was it that I knew that I could bring to a project that would make it feel… different, fresh.

“I realized that I had never seen a Jewish horror film that was set in the Hasidic community or that dealt with truly Jewish themes in terms of its lore and construction. The idea of a shomer facing a demon allowed me to explore the culture of Hasidic New York and, at the same time, dig into the horror filmmaking that I love.”

“The Vigil” was filmed in various locations around Brooklyn, New York, including Borough Park, Flatbush, Brighton Beach and Williamsburg, with shooting paused on Shabbat. The majority of the film takes place inside the home of the film’s executive producer, who had just purchased the modest house and was about to remodel. The film’s opening scene also features many ex-Hasidic actors and non-actors who have left the community or joined a more modern sect.

“For the most part, the community was welcoming. Or at least accepting of our presence,” Thomas explained of filming in ultra-Orthodox sections of Brooklyn. “A lot of people were quite curious about what we were doing.”

He recalled one day shooting in Williamsburg when “I looked up at one point (around 2 am, in bitter cold) to see 50 Hasidic men crowded around one of our production monitors watching what we were filming.”

The film includes some Yiddish dialogue and all speaking parts in the film are Jewish, as well as Thomas and all the producers. Lead actor Dave Davis, who played Yakov, learned Yiddish for the movie, and supporting actor Menashe Lustig is still a practicing Hasidic Jew — most well-known for his debut in the critically acclaimed Yiddish film “Menashe.”

The film’s co-producers Raphael Margules and J.D. Lifshitz are experienced horror movie producers, but this was their first “Jewish horror movie,” Margules said.

“I want it to leave people shaken and thrilled,” Thomas said about the film. “At the same time, I hope that the themes explored in the film — guilt, the lasting effects of trauma — resonate beyond the tension and scares. Jews will likely have a deeper appreciation of these thematic elements but I feel as though the film’s underlying message is a universal one. At the end of the day, ‘The Vigil’ is about learning to live with trauma and its aftereffects; while some emotional wounds never truly heal, we can learn to accept them and move forward in our lives.”

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