Dave Davis is excellent in “The Vigil,” an effective horror film by Keith Thomas. (Courtesy IFC Midnight)

Dave Davis is excellent in “The Vigil,” an effective horror film by Keith Thomas. (Courtesy IFC Midnight)

‘Vigil’ cleverly mixes Jewish culture, atmospheric scares

Folkloric demon comes alive in writer-director Keith Thomas’ debut feature

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Always on the lookout for new monsters, the horror genre often benefits from digging into folklore, as it did with last year’s “La Llorona,” and does again with the new “The Vigil.”

Available Friday on digital and Video on Demand, “The Vigil” involves a demon out of Jewish folklore called a mazzik, which is less malevolent and more of a pest than a dybbuk, but still wreaks a considerable amount of havoc.

The movie opens on a meeting of several people, where the discussion is about fitting in. A woman talks about the strange experience of a strange man trying to pick her up on the subway.

Another man,Yakov (Dave Davis), describes going on a job interview not knowing that he was supposed to bring a resume.

These folks are not aliens disguised as humans. They are former Orthodox Jews who have left their religion and are trying to transition into a “normal” life in Brooklyn.

It’s a clever introduction, juxtaposing deep, long-held traditions of a religion with the characters’ tender inexperience at life.

After the meeting, Sarah (Malky Goldman) asks Yakov if he’d like to get coffee sometime. He has no idea what to say or do, and he later is reduced to Googling “how to talk to women.”

But meanwhile, Yakov is approached by his old rabbi, Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), with a special request: A shomer is needed tonight.

A shomer is a person who stays overnight with the body of the recently deceased, offering prayer and protection; it may be a friend or a family member, or, if no one else is available, an outsider may be paid to do the job.

Yakov would rather not, but he needs the money.

Right away things seem odd. The deceased’s widow, Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen), tells Yakov to get out. But the rabbi insists that everything is OK, and that Mrs. Litvak has dementia and will likely be sleeping through the night.

Yakov settles in. The night begins with thumping noises, and the lights flickering on and off, and then things get much spookier.

The tension is compounded when we learn that Yakov suffers from delusions and hallucinations as a result of a trauma that resulted in the death of a loved one; he’s seeing a doctor and takes medication.

So can we trust that anything here is really happening?

Most of the reason “The Vigil” works as well as it does rests on the performance by Davis, who has had small roles on TV’s “The Walking Dead” and “True Detective,” but makes his breakout here.

His intensely expressive eyes convey deep-rooted pain, and every moment of his terror and panic feel absolutely real.

Even cleverer, his voice wobbles between a practiced, Orthodox cadence and a street-level Brooklyn accent, depending on how uneasy he’s feeling at the moment; he’s putting his guard up and letting it down.

Experience and inexperience bump heads in an intriguing way; Yakov has been a shomer before, but he has no idea how to text with Sarah. (He hesitates a few seconds before deciding to add a period at the end of one text.)

“The Vigil” was written and directed by Keith Thomas, making a strong feature filmmaking debut. (He also has a deal to direct a remake of Stephen King’s “Firestarter.”)

To achieve his spooky atmosphere, Thomas mainly relies on a wailing, droning music score and unsettling sound design, as well as clever lighting. The lamps in Mrs. Litvak’s home cast a perpetually brownish glow, making it feel darker and very late at night, and one crucial scene appears as if it’s lit by a single candle.

His pacing is knot-tight, packing this one-night story into a compact 89 minutes, and cleverly mixing quiet moments of reflection with sudden seizings.

While it has at least one solid spine-tingle and many other moments of chilling disquiet, “The Vigil” owes quite a bit to earlier horrors, including ghostly faces protruding from walls.

And while Thomas shows effective command of his filmmaking skills, what sets the film apart is the effective way he incorporates Jewish culture into the genre, staying truthful not only to rituals and traditions, but also doubts and downsides.

“The Vigil” compares more closely to “La Llorona” — from Guatemala — than it does to the American-produced “The Curse of La Llorona,” which seemed more invested in appropriating the titular ghost for its own purposes than in paying tribute to the ghost’s culture.

To that end, “The Vigil” feels as if it comes from an honest place, as if Thomas grew up hearing stories of the mazzik and hiding under the sheets in fearful glee. It’s an example of an artist wrestling with his inner demons and then sending them out into the world.

REVIEW

The Vigil

★★★ 1/2

Starring: Dave Davis, Lynn Cohen, Malky Goldman, Menashe Lustig

Written and directed by: Keith Thomas

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

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