Spirits and Scares in ‘The Vigil,’ a Horror Movie with a Hasidic Twist

February 26, 2021
photo: IFC Midnight

We’ve seen plenty of Jewish horror movies, mostly having to do with the atrocities of the Holocaust. “The Vigil” has an element of that, too, but it’s mainly a scare-filled psychological thriller steeped in Jewish ritual and lore.  Set in the Brooklyn, N.Y. Orthodox community of Boro Park, it’s about a former Hasid named Yacov (Dave Davis) who, strapped for funds, accepts a rabbi’s request to serve as a shomer, watching over a deceased member of the community overnight. Suffice it to say that it’s a very haunted evening.

Released today for Purim, the movie is the brainchild of producers Raphael Margules and J.D Lifshitz, who grew up Orthodox in New York, and writer director Keith Thomas, who has a Masters in religious education from a rabbinical school. There, having overheard a story about a shomer abruptly leaving a vigil, he was inspired to write the script. Margules and Lifschitz were immediately taken with it.  “J.D. and I were the movie kids in our Orthodox neighborhood on Long Island. We moved to L.A. in 2012 and have made 15 movies to date—action, sci-fi, but predominantly horror,” he said in a Zoom Q&A. “We wanted to make THE Jewish horror movie.” he added, calling everything he’d seen before “ridiculous. This is dripping with authenticity and it’s really terrifying.”

“We wanted to make THE  Jewish horror movie. It’s dripping with authenticity and it’s really terrifying”—Rafael Margules

Executive producer and cast member Malky Goldman (Sheindl in “Unorthodox”), who was raised Orthodox in Jerusalem and grew up speaking Yiddish, coached Davis on the language that makes up 50% of the film’s dialogue. “I grew up around Yiddish but I don’t speak it so it was one of the more difficult things I’ve done in my life. Malky was really instrumental in helping me figure out what I was saying,” Davis said. “It was really an incredible journey and a lot of fun to do. One of the incredible things about this film was the level of detail that was paid. You don’t see it in the movie but the silverware drawer was kosher. The time was taken to do it right.”

Additionally, since most associated with the production are observant Jews, there was kosher catering on set and there was no filming on Shabbos. While 80% of the scenes were shot in an about-to-be renovated house in Brooklyn where the owner had recently died, several sequences were shot outside. “We got permits and shot guerilla style with a very small crew. We wanted it to feel big and lavish even though it was a small, contained movie,” Margules said. “That was the craziest night we’ve ever had on a movie.” Davis recalled that the commotion brought out the curious. “We had hundreds of people asking what was going on in Yiddish and Menashe (Lustig, a Hasidic Jew who plays Reb Shulem) was explaining,” he said.

Davis, Thomas and Margules lost grandparents slightly before, or during, the making of the film, and for Davis, it led to a surreal situation addition to experiencing a loss that paralleled the story. “I was living in Los Angeles at the time but being in New York for filming allowed me to see my grandfather before he passed away and be there for the ceremony when he died. For one scene, I was covered in fake blood, scars and bandages, and we took a break for me to go sit shiva. I showed up like that, in costume, seeing family I hadn’t seen in years,” he recalled. “I got to see everyone and then went right back to set. I think that’s how he would have wanted it.”

The film is “dedicated to all the bubbes and zaydes because the movie kind of pays tribute to that generation of Holocaust survivors,” Margules added. “I always looked at it as a an extremely commercial, accessible mainstream movie, just set in a world you’ve never seen before.”

Another loss was the death of actress Lynn Cohen (“Munich,” “The Hunger Games”), who plays the widow Litvak and passed away in February 2020 following what would be her last role. “She brought so much light and energy and joy to the set, which was not an easy set to be on. It was small, cramped and frightening by design,” Davis said. “It was a privilege to work with her for the short time that we did,” added Margules, who remembered Cohen singing an old European melody as the character, “plugging into her own history.” It was a song her Ukrainian grandmother sang to her when she was a child.

Despite its very specific milieu, language and story, the “Vigil” producers “always looked at it as an extremely commercial accessible mainstream movie, just set in a world you’ve never seen before. We made the movie we wanted to make. It’s not only for Jewish audiences. It was made for a global audience,” Margules said, noting successful releases last summer in Europe and Asia. “It’s really about facing your own heritage, for better or worse. It was never intended to be preachy or offer any resolution. It’s been cool to see that resonate across cultures and ethnicities and languages because it’s a universal theme.”

That said, “It’s also very much about Jewish trauma and experience. The whole weight of the Holocaust and pogroms, anti-Semitic hate crimes, the idea of generational trauma within the Jewish community and experiencing that and coming through that and stepping into daylight in the end was really important,” Margules continued. “We didn’t move to L.A. to make Jewish horror movies, but we made one and it’s by far our favorite thing we’ve ever done. It’s been a long road to get here especially through the pandemic, and we’re really proud of it.”

Although the ending is somewhat open-ended, there are no current plans for a sequel. However, “Keith and I have always talked about making a trilogy of Jewish horror movies that would handle different subcultures within Judaism [such as] modern Orthodox,” Margules said. Meanwhile, the two are collaborating on two television shows and have several movies in the works. Thomas will direct the reboot of Stephen King’s ”Firestarter” staring Zac Efron, and Margules’ projects include a movie starring Wynona Ryder with Eli Horowitz directing, a crime thriller with Anna Kendrick, and a horror film called “Barbarian” slated to film this spring in Bulgaria.

Goldman also expects to begin shooting a new project in Europe in May or June, and has written a Yiddish play she hopes to mount online, among other possibilities. Davis has been “getting into painting, carpentry, music—piano and drums, guitar—and writing poetry. I try to keep myself engaged in a way that keeps all my synapses firing and my creativity sparked and keep me interested as a storyteller so when roles come along like this, I can bring something unique to the table,” he said. “Even though it’s been such a difficult time for all of us, it also has allowed a lot of time for new discoveries. It’s been a privilege in a lot of ways. I learned so much about a community that’s a deep part of my heritage that I didn’t know much about going into it. Of course, I want people to be scared and fascinated but I want people to see the reality of it and appreciate the depth of the human experience that the film delves into.”

“I want people to be scared to death and moved emotionally,” Margules similarly stated. “To me, ‘The Vigil’ is a very emotional movie. Jewish audiences, secular or otherwise, have this visceral, emotional reaction to the film. I want to scare the hell out of people, but I also want them to be moved.”

“The Vigil” is available in theaters and On Demand via cable, iTunes, Amazon Prime and other services in advance of its streaming release on Hulu.

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