Yakov is attending a meeting of what at first appears to be a meeting of Jews Anonymous. As the meeting carries on, it becomes more clear that this is a meeting for Aussteiger – people who have broken from the Hasidic community. They regularly switch language between English and Yiddish and talk about sexual harassment on public transport. They discuss whether The Rabbis wanted to protect them from this, or were afraid of any show of sexuality.
At the end of the meeting, one of the group – Sarah – asks Yakov out for a coffee and offers her phone number. He struggles to enter the number into his phone – he’s still coming to terms with using technology. Later on in the film, he’ll google “How to talk to women”. Suddenly, there’s a sinister figure outside. It’s one of his old contacts from the synagogue. They are trying to woo him back, but before that, they have an offer.
How does he fancy a job as a Shomer – the person who sits overnight with a dead body reciting psalms while it waits to be picked up by the mortuary. Its something he’s done before when he was more tied to the faith, and its $200 for 5 hours’ work. Yakov is not so sure, but he currently can’t afford to pay for both food and his medication, so after he haggles them up to $400, he’s in.
The dead man is a Holocaust survivor, who we learn felt that he was carrying the sufferings of his fellow-Jews on his shoulders – the film also references the Kiev pogroms and more recent antisemitic attacks. Carrying their sufferings is not just a metaphor – he believed that he was carrying a Dybbuk, or malevolent spirit, which will be passed onto an equally tortured soul when he dies.
Horror films often don’t work so well for me when they rely too much on the supernatural. If illogical shifts in plot are allowable just because the devil says so, then there is no sense of tension or jeopardy as literally anything can happen for no real reason. The Vigil deals with this problem by showing us everything through the eyes of Yakov, who is obviously an unreliable narrator.
We’ve already mentioned Yakov’s medication in passing. He is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, having witnessed the death of his younger brother, for which he blames himself. He’s spent time in a psychiatric institution and has the home number of his psychiatrist. Anything that is mediated to us through Yakov does not necessarily have any relationship to the truth.
The second main character who we encounter in the film is Mrs. Litvak, the widow of the deceased. Yakov believes that the Litvaks have hidden from the world and gone mad together. Mrs. Litvak is introduced as having Alzheimers, though she seems a little too lucid for this. When Yakov arrives, she tells him he must flee, and she later tells him about her tragic family history.
These are the circumstances in which we must judge the story that unfolds in front of us. Yakov hears strange noises, at first from above where Mrs. Litvak is supposed to be sleeping. The dim lamp bulb flickers and explodes. Yakov pours himself a glass of water, which turns into a toxic black liquid. He receives a message on a phone showing his sleeping face being stroked by Mrs. Litvak. When he tries to access it again, its been deleted.
It goes on. Yakov leaves the building, though he starts to get arthritic pains which makes it hard for him to move his hands and legs. He wakes up, and he’s back in the dimly-lit house, where someone has bandaged his hand. Mrs. Litvak says that it wasn’t her, it must have been her dead husband. Trying to find some solace, Yakov rings Sarah, who blames him for his brother’s death.
What is this all supposed to mean? In a sense, I think that this is the wrong question to ask. The film lends itself quite easily to various interpretations – psychological, paranormal, Zionist, secular. It wisely chooses to leave it to us what we make of it. It is even arguable whether the ending is happy, sad, or just more of the same. I’m good with that.
The Vigil isn’t a normal horror film, which is fine, as I’m no great fan of normal horror films. It clearly didn’t have much of a budget, with which I’m also fine. It doesn’t tell us any great unknown truths about the world, but then again it never claimed to be more than an entertaining story about a community which is under-represented in film. As such, it does exactly what it sets out to do, and as an added bonus, it leaves you thinking afterwards.