(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: The Vigil uses atmosphere and scares as more palatable delivery system for exposition.)
Writer/Director Keith Thomas’s feature debut pulls off the impressive task of creating an atmospheric and creepy chamber piece that shakes up the tired religious horror subgenre by introducing new mythology from an underrepresented voice in the genre. Thanks to The Exorcist, possession-based horror follows a similar formula, and nearly all religious-themed horror movies are framed from a Christian or Catholic perspective. The handful of films told from a Jewish lens tend to center around the dybbuk, a malevolent possessing spirit. Even fewer lean into the folkloric golem.
The Vigil sets its sights higher by bringing a Jewish demon to the screen; the Mazzik, a Talmudic mythology demon. Introducing relatively obscure mythology to new audiences requires exposition, and Thomas finds an innovative way to seamlessly deliver it through scares. In the film’s scariest scene, critical intel on defeating the demon gets nestled within an intense and tension-filled build-up to a significant jolt. It’s a compelling scene that doesn’t just make the exposition more digestible, but it raises stakes in the protagonist’s struggle to survive the night.
Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) left behind his Hasidic Jewish community after tragedy shattered his faith. He’s still reeling from the trauma while adjusting to the secular world, including the struggle for financial stability. Yakov’s cousin Reb (Menashe Lustig), hoping to lure Yakov back to the community, offers him a paid job as Shomer, a position often relegated to family members or professionals where one stands vigil over the deceased until they can be buried. After being told the last Shomer fled from fear, Yakov agrees to watch over the body of Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen) until dawn to stand vigil against any evil spirits.
The Story So Far
Upon entering the Litvak residents in the Brooklyn Hasidic community of Borough Park, Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) immediately rejects Yakov as Shomer. Reb blames this reaction on her dementia, and Yakov ignores it out of financial necessity. Mrs. Litvak retreats to her upstairs bedroom for the evening, and Reb departs, leaving Yakov alone in the darkened family room to watch over Mr. Litvak’s body.
At first, Yakov attempts to alleviate his boredom of sitting alone in a quiet house by texting his crush, Sarah (Malky Goldman). Then strange noises above prompt him to take his job more seriously. Soon, strange occurrences begin to put Yakov on edge. He’s sent a video of himself sleeping in Litvak’s armchair, and the camera wielder’s hand strokes his sleeping face. Startled, he goes into the kitchen for water but nearly chokes on a hairball. It leads to a bizarre encounter with Mrs. Litvak, who cryptically yet lucidly explains the house isn’t quite right. As she quietly heads back upstairs, she opens the door to the basement.
Drawn to the light and sounds emanating from below, Yakov goes downstairs into the basement. The walls are plastered in news clippings, articles, and photos, lit by the glow of an old TV. On it plays a video of Mr. Litvak, with his wife quietly seated behind him. While Yakov pores over the room’s details, Mr. Litvak explains the evil that’s long ago taken root in the house. The entity is a Mazzik, a parasitic entity that found him in the woods five decades prior, attracted to his suffering. The video describes the Mazzik as a being whose head is twisted entirely around as it’s “damned to look backward, to stare in the past.” Most importantly, Mr. Litvak explains how to stop the Mazzik before it’s permanently latched on to Yakov.
It’s only then that Yakov stops perusing the room and sits down in front of the TV. The camera pans in slowly, then focuses on Yakov’s face. His eyes focus not on Mr. Litvak but his wife in the background. The camera swings back to the TV, zooming in on Mrs. Litvak as she leans forward and seemingly locks eyes with Yakov. Mrs. Litvak’s mouth moves, but she’s too quiet to make out her words. Yakov moves close, barely reads her lips when all sound cuts out, and she whispers, “behind you.” Panicked, Yakov slowly turns his head to look behind, and when the tension is about to burst, the Mazzik lunges for him.
Thomas sets an unnerving tone straightaway that indicates a scare is imminent. The foreboding way in which Mrs. Litvak guided Yakov to the basement, where a TV played on its own without an audience, feels like an unseen entity corralling its prey. The cool blue glow of the TV screen lighting the dark, cluttered space exudes atmosphere. As Mr. Litvak relays vital information from the tape, Yakov works to take it all in at once.
The scene’s visual interest builds tension while simultaneously making the exposition delivered here not feel like a tedious slog. The anticipation of a scare adds balance to the heavy mythology building through distraction. The camera often focuses on Yakov instead of Mr. Litvak. Then, once the key information has been revealed, Thomas dedicates the focus to tension building, coiling it so tight until the scare can release it.
After Yakov sits down in front of the TV, the camera rarely wavers from him. It follows his gaze as he studies Mrs. Litvak on the screen. His expression starts with curiosity, then mounting fear with the dawning realization that she’s whispering a warning. One close-up shot of his eye, the tv reflecting in it, then a wider shot of Yakov as he fights his fear to turn his head is all it takes to ramp up the suspense to an excruciating degree.
The scene ends with a loud music sting that heralds in the gnarled grabbing hands of the Mazzik. Yakov bolts back upstairs to the quiet comfort of the living room, but safety is no longer an option for him. The stakes have effectively been raised. This exposition scene marks the first actual appearance of the Mazzik inside the home. It sets up the rest of the narrative with both the viewer and the protagonist now armed with all of the information they need to prepare for the showdown with the demon.
This terrifying and pivotal moment in the film doesn’t just use scares as a vehicle to deliver exposition; beneath the tidy explanation lies a discomforting, lingering question. Why would the Mazzik spoon feed Yakov the answer in how to thwart it? That lingering question changes how you perceive the ending- did Yakov truly defeat the demon, or was he manipulated into freeing it?
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