Religious-based horror has long been a staple of the genre. And yet, curiously absent is the Jewish religion from these films. The Vigil bills itself as a Jewish horror movie. When the film works, it pulls in practices and beliefs that are unfamiliar to someone outside of the religion in effective ways. When the film doesn't work, it relies on cheap jump scares all based around loud noises.
The film has a promising concept. Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) has recently left an Orthodox Jewish community to live as a Jewish American who is more casual about his faith. The opening scenes revolve around a sort of support group where details of the Jewish religion are given to help provide those unfamiliar with some context. Keith Thomas's script does some quick character building as we see how unaccustomed Yakov is to routine interactions with people outside of the orthodox community. In particular, he seems to have a hard time talking to a woman who calls him a few times throughout the film.
After leaving the support group meeting one night, Yakov is approached by a leader from the Jewish Orthodox community. He is asked to be a Shomer for one evening, a practice that requires someone to sit by the body of a deceased person in an overnight vigil. Yakov does not initially want to do this but is in need of money and takes the gig.
Once at the house where he will sit the vigil, we learn about a dybbuk, a malicious possessive spirit that is the dislocated soul of a dead person. The weaving of Jewish lore into the film's premise is genuinely fresh. The use of a specific ritual at its core is compelling. When The Vigil leans into this element, the film is at its best. First time director Thomas creates a creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere. Davis as Yakov is committed and often convincing.
However, the film throws away the atmosphere quickly as jump scare after jump scare plague the second half of the film. Loud noises will jolt your audience, sure, but it doesn't make for good horror. The premise and situation are unsettling enough to trust but The Vigil feels the need to go for standard supernatural fare instead of more intellectual horror. In the end, the film crumbles because of these troupe-ridden scares. It is a shame as there is something to the film that is very interesting and fresh.