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February 24, 2021 1:26 pm

New Thriller Movie ‘The Vigil’ Highlights Jewish Mysticism and Horror

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

Opinion

A scene from “The Vigil.” Photo: IFC.

All he must do is survive the night.

But that is easier said than done for Yakov Ronan (Dave Davis), a young man who has decided to leave Hassidism, and starts seeing things that can’t possibly be real.

The film starts a bit slow, but it’s clear that Yakov has caught the eye of a pretty young woman named Sarah (Malky Goldman from Unorthodox) who invites him to go out for coffee one day in the future.

Then Reb Shulem makes Yakov an offer he can’t refuse: cash for being a shomer, or guard over a dead body, for one evening. After negotiating, they agree on $400 for five hours. Reb Shulem cryptically tells him they had a shomer who left because he was afraid.

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But it is Davis and Lynn Cohen, who plays the wife of the deceased (and whom you may recognize as Golda Meir in the film Munich) that make this movie. Davis looks like a wounded animal who is tormented and has survivor’s guilt both from an incident involving a younger relative in New York City, as well as an image we see of presumably the Holocaust era (no spoilers here). The harrowing flashbacks are enough to give you a knot in your stomach.

The film balances itself well between the real (Yakov tells his shrink on the phone that the hallucinations are worse than usual) and the fantastic (we see the hands of a demon that will remind you of Pan’s Labyrinth). Our hero has to decide if he will run, or stay and battle the demon, possibly atoning for an earlier event in his life when he didn’t make the right choice.

The film is sadly timely, because the threat to Jews is all around us. A few blocks from where I write this, a Hassidic Jew was murdered with a machete. There have been so many attacks — in Brooklyn, Poway, upstate New York. Antisemitic language and blood libels are now spouted to millions in America and around the world on Saturday Night Live.

The film’s climactic scene, where Dave lights a candle and puts on tefillin, is a powerful one. Perhaps it is time for Jews to step up by calling out those who defame us with words. The film is haunting, and is the first film that gave me true chills since The Shining.

The author is a writer and educator based in New York.

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