A scene from "The Vigil."
A scene from "The Vigil."

‘The Vigil’: An ex-Hasidic man’s harrowing night with the dead

A young man has to stay up one night guarding the corpse of a stranger, having agreed to wait for the mortician. It is a dark and dreary house, and an old woman warns him not to stay.

Scary, right?

But wait! That’s the job of a shomer, who, in accordance with Jewish law, agrees to be a watchman over the body of the deceased until it is buried. And that’s what this man is, even though he recently left his insular Orthodox community in Brooklyn.

How can this setup for a Jewish horror film have been overlooked until now?

The film is called “The Vigil,” and it is being offered up for a special online screening from Feb. 4 through 11 courtesy of the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute. It’s an unexpected treat, as the film’s official release date isn’t until  Feb. 26 (although it did premiere on the festival circuit in 2019).

Keith Thomas, the director, saw the potential for such a movie when he was a student at Hebrew University College in New York City some years ago. While working on a master’s in religious education, he was visiting an Orthodox shul when he overheard two older men discussing a shomer who had left his “post” out of fear.

“That stayed with me,” he recounts in the press materials for the film’s release. “The stories I gravitate towards, the stories I like to tell, are rooted in tangible human experience.”

While “The  Vigil” is described as “a supernatural horror film” by its producers — and the trailer shows apt mastery of the genre — the film also is steeped in ancient Jewish lore and demonology. Set over the course of a single evening in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, it tells the tale of Yakov Ronen (Dave Davies), a young Jew who left his Hasidic community a short while ago. Low on funds, he reluctantly accepts an offer from his former rabbi to serve as an overnight shomer. Things go downhill as soon as he arrives at the recently departed’s dilapidated house to sit the vigil.

The 88-minute movie is the feature film debut for Thomas, who is a published novelist and former medical researcher. It also stars New York actor Malky Goldman (Sheindi in “Unorthodox”) as Sarah, and veteran New York theater actor Lynn Cohen as Mrs. Litvak, the requisite scary crone.

Margherita Ghetti, JFI’s Next Wave programmer, says that although the film explores Jewish traditions, it is also “incredibly relatable”  to millennials and Gen-Z film lovers.

“I’m not a fan of horror myself, but I have to say I loved this one,” Ghetti said in an email.

She added that the film “very consciously plays with genre, interweaving deeper questions and themes — about religion, faith, intergenerational trauma, relationships — with the suspense and playfulness of supernatural horror.“

The horror genre has allowed Thomas to inject the film with many of his own spiritual questions, as he asserts in his director’s statement: “For me, personally, the subtlest scares … work the best. All of them come from my own experience — a combination of nightmares and bad memories.”

If you’re watching the movie “for the thrill, I hope you enjoy it and it troubles your sleep,” he says. “If you’ve come to it for a glimpse into a cloistered world few secular people know, I’ll assure you that it is authentic. Regardless of the reason you’re watching ‘The Vigil,’ I hope you find something in our little story that haunts you, that burrows like a splinter in your consciousness and leaves you thinking. Even if it’s just for a few heartbeats.”

“The Vigil” is part of JFI Next Wave, a genre aimed at young adult film lovers that often showcases emerging filmmakers taking on contemporary topics through a Jewish lens. It is available for streaming as of Feb. 4, and once you start watching, you’ll have 48 hours to finish. You can buy your $12 ticket at any time, but the last day you can begin watching is Feb. 11.

The film, presented in partnership with IFC Films, is geoblocked to California only. Your screening will include a Q&A with Thomas and cast members. For details, visit jfi.org.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.