The Vigil opens tomorrow in select theaters and on digital platforms and VOD. The film marks the feature debut of writer/director Keith Thomas.
The story focuses on Dave Davis as Yakov, a young man who is paid to sit as a shomer for a recently deceased man. It is a duty he has performed many times before, but this night is much different. As the hours tick by, the shadows grow threatening, and Yakov is forced to face painful events from his past.
The atmospheric film is a rarity in the genre in that it is set in an insular Jewish community with trappings and traditions with which many viewers may be unfamiliar. It was a story that Thomas felt compelled to tell, however, and the director sat down with iHorror to discuss just how The Vigil came to be and what is next on his directing agenda.
For Thomas, The Vigil began as a desire to tell a story that no one else could.
“I love horror, and I hadn’t ever seen a truly Jewish horror film,” the director began. “So I thought I’m going to write and hopefully direct a Jewish horror film. From there, it came down to: what’s an interesting angle in terms of Jewish experience that people are maybe not familiar with? That’s how the idea of the shomer sitting and watching the dead came from. Once I had that, I thought, how is it that no one has actually ever made a movie with that setup?”
However, knowing the story he wanted to tell, and actually bringing it together were two different things. The script went through numerous changes, evolving into the final film.
For starters, though it was always meant to be set in an Orthodox community, it was not initially set in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. Once that move was in place, there were changes that had to be made, not only in story, but also in the language. The original script included a great deal of Hebrew as far as the prayers recited within it were concerned, but taking the location to the New York Hasidic environment also required the addition of Yiddish, a language that Thomas, himself, could not speak proficiently.
For those unfamiliar, Yiddish is a language derived from High German predominantly spoken by Ashkenazi Jews historically. It is thought to have originated in or around the 9th Century combining elements of High German with Hebrew and Aramaic, and later on Slavic with hints of Romance languages. At one time, it was spoken by as many as 11 million people worldwide. By 2012, that number had shrunk to around 600,000 with 250,000 of those living in America.
Many of those speakers living within the Hasidic communities in New York.
“I had rewritten the script and included a lot of Yiddish, but once we got there we kind of found a way to put in even more,” Thomas said. “It made more sense sticking with the authenticity of the film and these characters. This is their first language. This is what they would fall back on. They don’t learn English in school. They had to learn it afterwards if they leave.”
With all of this in place, they had to find their Yakov. It was not the easiest casting process. They saw a lot of actors, but they just hadn’t found the one who felt like he could carry an entire movie on his back.
Then, one evening, Thomas turned on the television and happened across a film called Bomb City starring Dave Davis. He says he instinctively knew two things: 1. Davis was Jewish and 2. he was an incredibly talented actor who had exactly the kind of skills Thomas had been seeking.
He went to his producers and told them they should find someone like Davis and the producers encouraged him to reach out to the actor, himself, to see if he would be interested.
“So, I did and it turned out that yes he was Jewish and he had a similar background to my own, both having non-Jewish sounding names and being Jewish,” Thomas said, laughing. “In my gut, it was right. Dave didn’t know any Yiddish before he showed up either. He learned it all and that accent—that accent is very particular to that community—so he really dove into it and I think it shows.”
Thomas was further blessed in bringing on Lynn Cohen to co-star in the film as the widow of the man for whom Yakov is sitting vigil. Sadly, it was Cohen’s last feature film she appeared in before her death in early 2020, but she gave the performance of a lifetime.
“The character of Mrs. Litvak that she’s playing in the story is a manifestation in some ways of her own grandmother,” he explained. “That accent is her grandmother’s. She’s pulling from her own past and stories which was really enriching. I was lucky with my cast that they were able to pull from their own experience to kind of bring these characters to life. Lynn did it so effortlessly. You say go and she was ready.”
The film premiered in September of 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Midnight Madness category and quickly became a favorite of audiences and critics alike. Its next stop was meant to be SXSW in 2020, but all of that came to a halt with the onset of Covid-19.
The film played New Zealand and Australia and eventually made its way into Europe as restrictions lessened, and now with the premiere in the United States it finally feels, for Thomas, that things are back on track.
Of course, this begs the question: What’s next?
The answer, is actually quite exciting. Thomas has teamed with Blumhouse and screenwriter Scott Teems (Halloween Kills) on a new adaptation of Stephen King’s classic Firestarter. The book was previously adapted in the 80s starring Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott.
“It’s something I’m really excited about,” Thomas said. “Firestarter was a book that I really loved growing up and we’ve got an amazing script by Scott Teems, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. If you loved the original book, I think you’ll like it. If you liked the film version with Drew Barrymore, I think you’re going to find something exciting in this as well.”
After seeing his feature debut, we can’t wait to see what Thomas brings to King’s story.
The Vigil is distributed by IFC Midnight and is set to release in theaters, on digital platforms, and on demand on February 26, 2021. Take a look at the trailer below, and let us know if you’ll be watching in the comments!