I can’t write this review without quasi-spoiling something about this movie–a moment that I really enjoyed, a moment that I’m a sucker for–so consider this fair warning.
When done well, few things in horror get to me quite like the moment when someone does or says something to menacingly reveal that they’re some kind of impostor. One of my favorite horror stories in any medium in recent years, the French series Marianne, deployed this effectively more than once.
The Vigil pulls this off a few times as well, but one particular instance stands out from the rest. In fact, one of the few flaws I’d say this film has is that it goes back to the well with this trick one too many times, in a moment where it’s a little too obvious what will happen. That being said, it’s more about execution than predictability when it comes to these things. My favorite instance of the impostor revealing themselves in The Vigil was also something I saw coming well ahead of time, but in that case it just made me feel even more excited and scared about what was to come. To the extent that it made me turn the lamp on in my bedroom. I can’t remember the last time before this that a movie or book or anything made me flip a light switch.
I also can’t explain why I like this particular horror fiction device so much. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of something that happens to me in dreams, but feels so much safer because I can turn off a movie or set a book down so much more easily than I can escape my sleeping mind. I’ve long had dreams that seemed docile and pleasant enough, only to have something happen to show the dream is an impostor, a nightmare in disguise just waiting for me to let my guard down. It’s not quite the same as what happens in stories, but it feels similar enough to me. Things will seem pleasant or innocuous enough in the dream (though still strange, because dreams are inevitably illogical to some degree) and then I’ll notice that I’m alone, or that there’s no obvious way out of some building I’ve been in, or that one of the players in my mental theatre isn’t taking a joke well and is about to set off a chain of horrible violence. I recognize the nightmare has been impersonating something harmless, I see its façade slip, and my spirit sinks as I know I’m in for something decidedly unpleasant.
Again, it’s different for me when I’m watching a movie, reading a book, listening to a podcast, etc. I can enjoy and appreciate that sort of misdirection then, even as it might make my heartbeat hasten, as it did in The Vigil. It helps that the demonic villain, the mazzik–largely unseen for the film’s duration–is described early on as a shapeshifter identifiable due to having its head on backwards. It’s a simple and bizarre characteristic that has potential to come off a little silly, but instead proves effectively unsettling, partly due to how much the movie builds anticipation for actually getting a clear look at the thing. This is especially impressive considering most of the movie takes place in a single, small brownstone house, and even on just one floor of the house at that.
Writer and director Keith Thomas knows what he’s doing. This is a movie about guilt, culture, having and losing faith, trying to forgive yourself, and respecting tradition while also trying to free yourself from some of it. This is a film that could have made the demon purely metaphorical and not an actual entity that exists within its universe, or could have eschewed the demon entirely, and might have gotten more love overall because of it. Not just because it might then have appealed more to people who don’t view horror as a vessel for “serious” storytelling (to be fair, are there even that many influential people who think that way left nowadays?), but also because it wouldn’t be susceptible to criticisms from horror fans who either don’t like heavy, sentimental themes mixed with their scares, or who purely rate a movie on whether it scared them or not (I feel like there’s still an abundance these types of fans out there).
Yes, I’ve spent much of this review talking about how much its best scares impacted me, but The Vigil is also well-acted (carried primarily by lead Dave Davis, though the late Lynn Cohen also stands out), well-plotted and well-directed.
Final Verdict: Very, very good. Made me turn a lamp on, and also made me feel.