(director/writer: Keith Thomas; cinematographer: Zach Kuperstein; editor: Brett W. Bachman; music: Michael Yezerski; cast:  Dave Davis (Yakov Ronen), Menashe Lustig (Reb Shulem), Malky Goldman (Sarah), Fred Melamed (Dr. Kohlberg), Lynne Cohen (Mrs. Litvak), Ronald Cohen (Rubin Litvak), Nati Rabinowitz (Lane); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: J.D. Lifshitz, Adam Margules, Raphael Margules; BoulderLight Pictures; 2019-in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, with English subtitles if needed)

“I loved it for bringing us into the darkness of the mysterious Jewish underworld, but I only wish it did a lot more daring things with it once there.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Keith Thomas’ feature film debut is a good one in this creepy Jewish supernatural horror film. The filmmaker graduated from New York City’s Hebrew University College with a master’s in religious education. His film is set over the course of a single evening in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood. The story involves a demon out of Jewish folklore called a mazzik, who is largely a pest-like demon who feeds off the suffering of another as he wreaks havoc when on the loose.

In the opening scene, there’s a meeting among former Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn who are inexperienced about fitting into regular society and try to learn how. A young man named Yakov (Dave Davis) tells of going on a job interview not knowing he needed to bring a resume.

After the meeting, a young woman named Sarah (Malky Goldman) asks Yakov if they can go for coffee sometime. This request leaves him speechless, as the unworldly man doesn’t know how to respond.

Yakov is then asked by his former Hasidic rabbi, Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), to be a shomer (a person who stays overnight with the body of  a recent deceased person, offering prayer and protection. It’s usually a friend or a family member, but if they can’t be found and outsider is paid to do it. In this case the amount is $400). Yakov, who was a shomer before, does it again tonight but only for the money.

The deceased’s widow, Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen, the late great actress who died soon after making this film), has dementia and will sleep all night during Yakov’s apartment watch over her Holocaust survivor husband (Ronald Cohen). She warns Yakov not to take the job as she expects trouble because of the pain her husband suffered in the camp has not gone away. The previous shomer refuses the job without an explanation, and the vulnerable Yakov is his replacement.

Things start out odd on the vigil with loud thumping sounds, appearances and disappearances  of strange objects, and the lights flickering on and off. Also, we’re informed that Yakov takes meds because he was once traumatized by the death of a loved one. When Yakov tries to retreat from his watch duties after getting physically abused, the spirits  pull him back into the room to face the medicine.

Relying on the usual jump scares and the effective scary droning music score, the powerful fright film grabs our attention and holds it throughout. The message sent is of how difficult it’s to get away from a past you invested so much time and commitment in–especially in the Holocaust.

The commanding emotionally tight performance by Menashe Lustig as the true believer in the two worlds (the spiritual and real one), gives the film some heft. But the film stays on course and is predicable, when it would have worked even better being more subversive and less predictable. Nevertheless I loved it for bringing us into the darkness of the mysterious Jewish underworld, only wishing it did a lot more daring things with it once there.

Dave Davis as Yakov in “The Vigil.”