Following the witchy theme of his short film Arkane (2017), writer-director Keith Thomas turns again to horror for his debut feature The Vigil, as he adds to a recent run of films – Ole Bornedal’s The Possession (2012), the Paz brothers’ Jeruzalem (2015) and The Golem (2018), and Marcin Wrona’s Demon (2015) – that view Jewish history and identity through the prism of genre.

The Vigil dramatises the processes by which myth and memory sustain trauma down the generations, while suggesting how this pernicious spell might be broken. At its centre is Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), a psychologically scarred young man who has recently fled his Orthodox Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, but now – unemployed, impoverished and confused about how to conduct himself in the outside world – is easily drawn back by his rabbi (Menashe Lustig), agreeing to observe an all-night vigil (as a shomer, a watchman) over the corpse of Holocaust survivor Mr Litvak (Ronald Cohen) in return for payment.

“What matters”, Yakov is told by Lane, who runs a counselling group for ex-Orthodox Jews, “is we’re moving forward.” Yet Yakov and others in The Vigil are haunted by their histories. This retrospective fixation is encapsulated by Yakov’s principal activity of monitoring a dead man, and also by the Mazzik, an ancient demon that feeds parasitically on a host’s pain and is “damned”, as Litvak says in a video recording, “to look backwards” – truly a monstrous avatar of these characters’ preoccupation with their pasts.

Meanwhile, the narrative, part-psychological part-supernatural, comes with not one but three primal scenes – the dead man’s unspeakable concentration camp ordeal, the similarly harrowing experience of his wife’s grandfather in Kiev 1919, and Yakov’s more recent traumatic encounter in a New York street – which reveal the single source of so much lasting damage down the ages to be anti-Semitic persecution. These three men from different eras have all, as Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen) puts it, been “broken by memories” which “bite, and the biting never stops”.

Yakov is a conflicted man, filled with guilt and anguish over his inaction during a violent event, and struggling to move on. Accordingly, his vigil is presented as a long dark night of the soul, in scenes which play as pure horror; they are assisted in this by Michael Yezerski’s nerve-shredding score, DP Zach Kuperstein’s expert shadow-wrangling, and Matt Davies’s disorienting sound design. The insidious assault of the Mazzik restages the sleepy (and possibly dreaming) Yakov’s anxieties and evasions; this eventually leads to a re-embracing of his cultural heritage, a confrontation with his deepest fears, and a re-emergence into the world as a confident Jew whose past is no longer a burden.

Originally published: 31 July 2020