Dating back to the early days of horror cinema, some of the easiest ways to tap into unsettling subject matter was offering twisted interpretations of religious mythology, the peak of which is arguably 1973’s The Exorcist. Given how familiar most horror fans are with tales and figures from Christianity, many tales of terror tap into that lore to expedite the exposition of frightening adventures. With writer/director Keith Thomas‘ The Vigil, however, he embraced Judaic lore to deliver a refreshing perspective on supernatural scares, while also embracing unexpected filmmaking techniques to create a nightmarish experience. The Vigil hits select theaters, digital platforms, and VOD on February 26th.
Steeped in ancient Jewish lore and demonology, The Vigil is a supernatural horror film set over the course of a single evening in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood. Low on funds and having recently left his insular religious community, Yakov (Dave Davis) reluctantly accepts an offer from his former rabbi and confidante (Menashe Lustig) to take on the responsibility of an overnight “shomer,” fulfilling the Jewish practice of watching over the body of a deceased community member. Shortly after arriving at the recently departed’s dilapidated house to sit the vigil, Yakov begins to realize that something is very, very wrong.
ComicBook.com caught up with Thomas to talk about developing a signature style for the film, his influences, and upcoming projects.
ComicBook.com: Your film clearly sets itself apart from projects that rely on Christian lore to set the stage for its horrors, so when you approached developing the visual style of The Vigil, did you also aim to distinguish this film apart from similar fare?
Keith Thomas: I think in some ways yes, and in other ways no. I really did approach it as it was going to be a horror film through a Jewish lens in terms of the community we’re in and the language and the mythology and all that stuff, but I wanted it to feel like a horror film and have the tropes that you might expect as an easy entry into it. So, for me, in some ways, it was me thinking, “Okay, it’s a chance to do like a Jewish Exorcist.” So a lot of the visual style, it came from me being influenced by certain things.
There are some films you see at a certain age that just lodge themselves in your brain. And, for me, it was stuff like Angel Heart and it was stuff like Jacob’s Ladder and it was just a certain aesthetic and a feel and a look to those films that I wanted to replicate in some ways that I also thought would be true to, “Oh, this is a religious horror film, it just happens to be Jewish, but it’s going to have that atmosphere.”
Maybe this is a very specific reference and the answer could be a simple “no,” but based on the overall premise, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1967 Russian film Viy and wondered if that was at all an influence on this film.
No, 100%. It’s actually very weird. So I saw Viy, I had stumbled across a VHS cassette of it, I don’t know, maybe in college, something like that, and I loved it. I saw it and I loved it. And then I forgot about it. And then I wrote The Vigil and, after I’d written the first draft of the script, I was going through and just pulling stuff when I was making look-books, in terms of theme and look and design, and Viy popped up again. I was like, “Oh, that’s right. I love Viy.” So then, I rewatched it again. It’s one of those movies that has a similar setup, in a way, to The Vigil, kind of unconsciously, but it does so much with such amazing and bizarre practical effects. Yeah, I love it.
The Vigil is still very different from Viy, and when I watched it, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh this movie is totally ripping off this Russian film from the ’60s,” but I’m glad I wasn’t too off-base by seeing that connection.
Right. Yeah, and it’s funny because it’s a film that I remember, I believe I talked to Zach Kuperstein, our DP, about Viy, and I had mentioned it to several people on set and said, “You should check this thing out.” Maybe it was even the special effects team. But, yeah, it’s a movie that’s unjustly obscure. It certainly was for a very long time, it was really hard to find. I know there’s obviously the Blu-ray release recently of it, but it’s a film that needs to be discovered. And you’re right, it’s very tonally different than The Vigil. And, obviously, plot-wise, but they share the same corner of the universe, I think.
What really stands out to me is the way you play with light and shadow in the film, only barely offering glimpses of things in the shadows or playing with stark contrasts. One shot specifically of Yakov in front of a floor lamp was quite striking. How much of that were you able to capture on set, in-camera, as opposed to what needed to be tweaked and exaggerated in post?
Honestly, like I said, Zach’s a genius, I would say 95% of it was on set, in-camera. And that scene, in particular, which I also really like the look of, is Dave silhouetted against the lamp that comes at the end of a six-minute one-er. So the fact that we were able to land there … we had meticulously planned it out, and Zach and I knew exactly where we needed to be. But it wasn’t like the ground was all marked and Dave had to exactly find his spot, but once we had it, we knew it. And it was like, “Wow, we got that thing.” Then the color grading, we had a great colorist, as well, at Deluxe, and the color grading just amplified that even more. It was just like, “Wow, it’s really bringing that out.” And so it was, I think, that our real push was no shot is wasted, right? We’re trying to find something. Every frame, every setup is trying to do something interesting or at least have some interesting visuals going on, even if it’s a quiet moment.
The decision to make a “Jewish Exorcist” would surely bring a lot of scrutiny not only from the horror community, but also from the Jewish community. Did you feel an extra amount of pressure to satiate both communities or were you confident enough in the material that it wasn’t really a consideration?
I think it was definitely a factor on both cases, in the development and lead up. Once we got to set and we were in pre-production and the house was coming together and I was seeing the design elements, all these aspects, I felt pretty confident in the Jewish part of it. I was like, “Okay, this is true to life, that these prayers are authentic. The rituals are all authentic.” That I had the literal blessings of multiple rabbis that this is kosher, so to speak. The scares, however, were another piece of … horror fans are fickle, and scares are so subjective, too. Some people are like, “Oh, I hate jump scares. I can never handle a jump scare.” Which I don’t actually understand, because all horror films have jump scares. That’s kind of integral to them.
But, at the same time, when I was writing the script and in the early stages of it, it was like, “How do I work in as many scares as possible to cover all those bases?” So some people are going to be like, “Oh, the toenail scene is the most terrifying thing.” For me personally, I like gore as much as the next guy, but I don’t find it scary. It doesn’t actually scare me, and maybe that’s because of my medical background. But I wanted that in there because it works on some people.
For me, it’s much more of the psychological scares. It’s the scene with the telephone, with his psychiatrist, and what’s actually happening there. That’s scarier to me. But I was never sure. And, of course, when you’re shooting these scenes, they don’t look scary at all, right? They look ridiculous on set. So you have to just think, “Okay, in post, here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we’re making this actually scary,” because the scares themselves are such machined events. There’s not really happy accidents in terms of scares, it’s much more manufactured and you’re just hoping that it comes together the way you want it to.
WARNING: Mild spoilers below for The Vigil
While I would surely say this film is effective and enjoyable from a horror perspective, I wouldn’t say that the film is “fun” on any level. Given how dark the overall story is, and the events seen in the movie and overall somber tone, did that darkness have much of a personal impact on you, either in development or while filming?
I would say definitely, the end of the film, the last shots that we did — weirdly enough, the last day of shooting was actually the scene where he goes outside and tries to get away. It was very tough for Dave, in particular, just the emotional turmoil he was in. But, for me, it came from a personal place, and it dealt with a lot of heady, weighty, stark things, that I knew, even from the script stage when I was in it. Honestly, probably the hardest part was in the script. That was when I was feeling it the most, when I was writing it, I was like, “Yeah, this is pretty heavy.”
When I was actually making it, there was so much levity between takes. I mean, levity as much as you can without distracting anybody, but that it didn’t feel as oppressive. It was interesting when I finally saw the first cut of it, and I was like, “Wow, that’s what I wanted.” But still, I was like, “Wow, it actually is pretty heavy.” And so I was very thankful for the moments of levity that exist in it. Like some of the jokes with Dave with his phone typing, and obviously, those little beats, and him using the flashlight and stuff. And it’s interesting, at the premiere, I was very happy to see there was laughter and I think that laughter comes from a place of breaking tension. But also, it was doing what it needed to do and the film wasn’t totally a kick in the gut.
You’ve got an adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter coming up, with that book having fans and that previous movie adaptation having fans. Obviously there’s no real way for you to spoil your film, but how do you navigate making fans of the book and previous movie happy while also carving your own path with it?
It’s something I’ve thought a lot about. And, certainly, when the project first came to me, I was very lucky in that the script by Scott Teems, who wrote the upcoming Halloween Kills, was just very, very good, and very rich. The material itself isn’t different, right? I mean, it’s the same book that this film is drawing from, the one the earlier film did. But what we’re leaning into from the book is different. That’s the angle where you can do something. So, for me, it was really leaning into more emotional aspects. It was leaning into parenthood and what that looks like, and then, how do you raise a child, especially a child with abilities like this. That was the place the script went and I thought that it was something that’s a little different than the original film.
Also, the book’s super rich. There’s a lot of stuff that’s in the book that isn’t in the original film. There’s stuff in there that we’re using, that we’re going into. At the same time, I feel like, just for me, in terms of the films I’m interested in, I feel like there’s a visceral quality to the story that I didn’t see in the ’80s version, a rawness that I think is there in the book, that I certainly felt, that I’m really interested in diving into. And, luckily, I think everybody else involved feels the same way, that this is going to be … not only will it have the effects and you’re going to get to see all the stuff Charlie can do, which is fun, and cool, and exciting, but if we do it right, it’s not so much as dark as The Vigil, but you should come out of it emotional. If you do it right, it’s going to really hit that way.
The Vigil hits select theaters, digital platforms, and VOD on February 26th.