Though some of the scariest films ever belong to the religious horror canon, from “The Exorcist” to “The Omen,” it’s still rare to find horror movies firmly rooted in the Jewish faith. With his feature debut “The Vigil,” writer/director Keith Thomas aims to change that, drawing from a deep well of Jewish mysticism to craft a spine-tingling story of possession, demonology, and haunted heritage.
Faith is painful for the troubled Yakov (Dave Davis), who’s left his Orthodox Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, after a personal tragedy. Cash-strapped, he’s unable to refuse when asked to fill in as an overnight shomer, watching over the body of a deceased community elder before burial. Once inside the man’s home, Yakov learns the previously arranged shomer quit suddenly. And as the night continues, he learns why, discovering evidence that a demon known as a mazzik may be haunting the home, feeding on both his fear and that of the deceased.
With the exception of a few features involving a spirit called a dybbuk, Jewish folklore has gone largely unexplored in horror. As if to compensate for this, “The Vigil” is told primarily in Yiddish, delves into the particularities of Jewish grieving rituals, and even swaps out crucifixes for tefillin (black leather boxes containing Torah passages, worn during prayer). Moreover, its throughline of moving through grief speaks both to Yakov’s experiences and the larger burden of a Jewish history tainted by trauma.
Thomas spoke to RogerEbert.com about making an authentically Jewish horror film and giving tefillin its “Evil Dead” moment.
The cultural specificity of “The Vigil” begins with its setting. Why was Brooklyn the right place for this story to unfold?
When I first wrote the screenplay, I thought I could scrape together money for it and make a film on my own. It wasn’t set in Brooklyn. It was still within this community, but not there. But when I teamed with my producers at BoulderLight, they said, “If you’re making a Jewish horror film, it’s gotta be in Brooklyn!” I agreed, and it turned into a much bigger movie than I’d planned to make. Filming in Williamsburg and around Borough Park, you’re going to get noticed, especially when it’s 2:30 in the morning on a Tuesday. It’s not a guerilla-style film. We had a 150-foot dolly track we were riding the camera up and down, and we had a big crew. There was a lot of curiosity, in terms of why we were there. But we went in wanting to respect the community and still be able to tell our story. We walked the line Yakov does, of being someone who’d left the community and had to go back.
“The Vigil” takes place in one home where so many details, from the carpet to the coffee table, speak to a Hasidic household.
Liz Toonkel, who did the production design, lives in Williamsburg, and she went all in on it. I didn’t know all the things we might need in the house to make it Hasidic, so we had advisors on set. Malky Goldman, who plays Sarah, was one of those advisors. The mezuzahs we got, where we placed them, how we placed them—there’s a lot in there you don’t necessarily see on screen, but if you were to open any of the drawers in any of the rooms, you’d find that place to be authentic. The house itself was a real house in Brooklyn, owned by an elderly Jewish woman who’d passed away a few months before we moved in there. She left behind a number of things that we kept, like the rug, the drapery, and some furniture.
Dybbuk means “attachment” in Hebrew, but mazzik means “destroyer,” which is markedly more sinister. In developing “The Vigil,” what struck you about the idea of spirits that represent not only attachments to the past but the ways those attachments can do us harm?
It’s horror, so there had to be some entity. Dybbuks felt played out, a golem just wouldn’t work, so what other Jewish monsters are there? Diving into it, I found the mazzik, which like you said translates to “destroyer” in Hebrew. It had no description in the rabbinic literature I found; it was just like, “Don’t go in that house, because there’s a mazzik there,” but literally no description of what it was. I liked that it was obscure.
At the same time, I knew the themes of the film were going to be about trauma, PTSD, and how a trauma to an individual affects a family, a neighborhood, a community, a people—the ripple effect of that. And specifically Jewish trauma, because we’re in this community. When it came time to envision the un-envisionable, with the mazzik, it was important to me that it embody those themes. The scariest thing isn’t a monster that pops out of the closet; it’s the flesh-and-blood return of your repressed memories.
“The Vigil” flashes back to pogroms in Kiev, the Holocaust, and an incident on a New York City street corner, all of which conjure the scourge of anti-Semitism. Why was it important for you to make a Jewish film about Jewish pain?
Once I knew I was telling this story in this community in Brooklyn and within Judaism, I knew anti-Semitism would be a big part of it. They say it’s the oldest hatred. What I thought was interesting, almost in a scientific way, was this idea of a demon who feeds on fear. If a Jewish guy is stuck in the house with that, where is it going to pull that fear from? Yakov has his own individual incident, but the mazzik is an ancient thing. It’s just like anti-Semitism itself. It’s plagued these people, because it has a lot to feed on. There have been many incidents. It was important to touch on the Holocaust but also earlier stuff.
Part of that comes from my own family history. We lost family in the Holocaust, but also in pogroms beforehand. That always struck me as a kid. We conceptualize the Holocaust as this indescribably devastating event, but there were lots of other incidents. In my mind, even in the film, we’re only showing the tiniest moment of the Holocaust through one man’s experience, and it’s just as powerful and destructive as what happens to Yakov’s brother on the street.
Yakov deals not only with survivor’s guilt but with mental illness that has warped his trauma. He’s together in that house with Ms. Litvak (the late Lynn Cohen), who has dementia. How did you approach the psychology of these unreliable narrators?
This tortured soul was always going to be the protagonist, put in the crucible of that house. I’ve always been fascinated by trauma and its effects on a personal level, but it’s universal. Fear is crippling for a lot of people. Trauma goes hand-in-hand with that; they’re best friends, those two. You’ve got a guy stuck alone in a house with a body. He’s going to have existential thoughts. For me, the most interesting character is one in full-blown crisis, somebody we join not as things are starting or ending but in the middle.
As I was writing the script, I thought it’d be important to have some other person, who’d interact with this character who’s having a mental breakdown in some ways but also a breakthrough. I wanted that person to also be unreliable. Before being a filmmaker, I’d been in clinical research, and I did a lot of work in nursing homes. I spent years with folks who had dementia and Alzheimer’s, seeing them as they unraveled. Say there’s one person he can go to in that house, and she’s not all there.
Lynn was amazing. She brought this huge wealth of experience, as well as her own Jewish background and story. Ms. Litvak, for Lynn, was personal; she played Ms. Litvak as her own grandmother, using the same accent her immigrant grandmother had. She was 86 when we filmed this, and she knew a lot of folks her age suffering from dementia; she had a lot of rich material to pull from and make it personal. I loved the idea Yakov could talk to Ms. Litvak but had no idea if what she was saying was real, or not, or her disease, or supernatural stuff that actually was happening in the house.
You did not go directly into filmmaking out of college, and that your journey along the way included pre-med, rabbinical school, and clinical research. Can you tell me a little about that?
The keyword is “convoluted.” I always have to preface this by saying that all kids dream of being filmmakers. But going off to college, I didn’t see how that could happen for me. I wasn’t going to USC and, even if I was, how many of that school’s graduates actually make movies? I studied academic film in college, but not filmmaking, and then I went into pre-med. After, I went to rabbinical school, where I got a master’s in education. Then, I realized I should have gone to medical school, so I switched gears again and went into clinical research.
The entire time, I felt this angel or demon on my shoulder. I’ve always been driven, and there was a career drive to become a doctor. But there was also a creative drive, which often felt like subterfuge, derailing my career side. I was getting ready to apply to medical school. I’d taken all the prerequisites and was ready to take the MCAT. And then I wrote a book. [laughs] And it got attention, so I quit.
It was a back-and-forth, and the creative demon won out. By that point, I was in my 40s. Honestly, it was only then I had the confidence to know I could make something. If I’d gone to film school, I think my movies would have sucked. I wasn’t ready. It’s almost like studying Jewish mysticism or Kaballah. They say you have to be over 40 and have a family before you can even try. To take a stab at filmmaking, I had to know who I was enough to do it. And with this story, I was just lucky no one else had done it yet. Other horror films have dealt with dybbuks, but it’s always non-Jews finding the dybbuk box and getting cursed. No one had done it in the Jewish community and gone fully Jewish. Once I found that angle, it was as if I’d been preparing for it my whole life.
Before facing the mazzik, Yakov puts on head-and-arm tefillin. I’ve seen heroes in horror movies grip a crucifix or affix a chainsaw to their arm before facing the big bad, but I’ve never seen tefillin used in this context.
It came from that place close to “Evil Dead II,” with Ash putting that chainsaw on his arm. It’s a classic archetypal scene of facing the thing that frightens you, and everyone loves that drumbeat moment of armoring up. From there, I asked, “Well, what is it? What’s the Jewish version of the priest’s crucifix?” And I realized I’d never seen in a film anyone putting on tefillin, just in general. I asked some rabbis if that was kosher, if you could put on tefillin and face a demon in the hallway, and they were like, “Sure, 100 percent, that’d help!”
It was a producer’s grandparent’s tefillin we used, and it was very emotional in that room, with Lynn there as well. It was a powerful moment, filming it. And in post-production, when Michael Yezerski brought in the score, I kept telling him to add more and make it louder. It’s now the poster, that scene, but even in filming it we knew, “If any moment works, it’s this one.”
I’m struck by how relatively few Jewish horror films there are. Why do you think that is?
It’s interesting. So many horror filmmakers are Jewish, so why aren’t they making Jewish horror films? I have theories, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the largest part of the Jewish population in America is not very superstitious. It’s just not a part of their daily experience. It wasn’t one of mine. We don’t have that concept of hell, the devil, and demons being sent up for people’s souls that Christians do. It can feel that supernatural stuff does not apply.
But at the same time, we have a history that is so horrific, and I could see people not wanting to go into that. It’s already horrible. Why add demons? Once I started digging into it, that lore is pretty rich. The mazzik comes from a very ancient source, and there were plenty of fears of demons around then. It felt like that was the root. In my film, we’re dealing with history and people over generations, so I wanted to bring those old things back, to see how we’d deal with them in modern times.
From where did you draw inspiration for the film’s scares?
The moments that I found the scariest, personally, came from nightmares. In one scene, Yakov has a conversation with his psychiatrist on his phone, and there’s this twist; that came directly from a dream I had in high school. I was on the phone with an imaginary girlfriend, pouring out all my emotions, and the person on the other end of the phone was responding as if they were that person and knew my name, and then I suddenly realized I’d called the wrong number. I woke up from that dream with chills, and it’s been sitting with me for 20 years.
Toward the end, there’s an out-of-focus shot where a form moves downstairs behind Yakov, and it’s unclear whether it’s a rabbi or the mazzik. I realized, either way, it’s not going to let him get away.
[laughs] It’s always tricky how you end these things. We had a moment of catharsis, and then I had this idea of moving through trauma. Even if you look forward and carry on, that trauma is still there, and you can’t remove it fully. You wouldn’t be you if you could. I wanted the mazzik to follow him out of the house, to make it clear he’s gotten through this night but that this thing will still be there, at a distance. At the same time, I didn’t want it on the nose, hence the decision to shoot this figure entirely out of focus, as a blob that’s clearly a person, or something—and clearly in that shape, right? It’s wearing that hat and the coat. You could not know, and I like that it’s ambiguous. If he had followed all the rules of the encounter with the mazzik, as he was supposed to, why would it be following him? If you think through the film, with the video in the basement and why it’s telling him what it’s telling him, there’s a sense that’s perhaps just another one of the mazzik’s games. I also like the idea that, rather than following him for the rest of his life, maybe Yakov just let it out of the house.
“The Vigil” is in theaters and on VOD Friday.