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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Demonology and Faith of ‘The Vigil’ [Spoilers]

This article contains spoilers.

Possession-based horror movies tend to feature a central protagonist suffering a crisis of faith, thanks to the massive success of The Exorcist. Its lead, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), struggles with believing amidst a world of suffering. His grief and guilt over his mother’s death threaten to swallow his faith whole, which in turn makes him vulnerable to Pazuzu. It’s only when he takes a giant leap of faith that he’s able to win. Karras’s journey set the blueprint for demonic possession horror, and The Vigil adheres to the mold. What sets this chilling tale apart, though, is its approach, refreshing shift in religion, and distinct demonology.

This spooky tale takes place over one frightful evening, with its lead confronting both his guilt and a demonic entity. That lead is Yakov (Dave Davis), a former Orthodox Jew attempting to adjust to the secular world after tragedy sucked away his faith. Yakov also struggles financially, often choosing between prescription meds or meals. It’s the latter that causes him to accept a paid job from a cousin (Menashe Lustig) who intends to exploit Yakov’s monetary anxieties in hopes of bringing him back to the Hasidic Jewish community. Yakov accepts to act as Shomer, where one guards a recently deceased body against evil spirits until they can be buried. In this case, it’s for Holocaust survivor Mr. Litvak.

The role of Shomer is often a job performed by family members or paid professionals. Straightaway, Yakov learns that the first Shomer fled in fear shortly after stepping inside the Litvak household. Even when the Alzheimer’s afflicted widow, Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen), rejects Yakov as her husband’s Shomer, financial desperation drives Yakov forward in completing the job, and he’s left alone with Mrs. Litvak and her deceased husband for the night. It doesn’t take long for things to start going bump in the night, and for the demonic entity that latched on to Mr. Litvak to emerge in hopes of making Yakov its newest victim.

Writer/Director Keith Thomas, making his feature debut, introduces the Mazzik, a demon of Talmudic mythology. Here, the Mazzik -which means “destroyer” in Hebrew per the director in an interview with SyfyWire– feeds off of the suffering of its host. Roughly halfway through The Vigil, Yakov finds his way into the basement, where an old tape of Mr. Litvak plays to deliver the exposition behind this movie’s demon. He describes it as a parasitic entity that found him in the woods five decades prior, attracted to his suffering. It’s a callback to the opening scene, in which a Nazi forces a man to point a gun at a woman. Mr. Litvak was forced to execute a fellow concentration camp prisoner, and the traumatic event attracted the Mazzik. The video describes the Mazzik as a being whose head is twisted entirely around as it’s “damned to look backward, to stare in the past.”

Mr. Litvak relays the most vital step in thwarting this demonic parasite from latching on; burn its real face before the dawn of the first night that it appears. The implication clear, as this is Yakov’s first encounter with the demon. He warns that if it’s not done before then, the Mazzik will never leave him. With Mr. Litvak’s death, the Mazzik wants another broken soul. Yakov, whose trauma reveals itself in flashbacks throughout the film, serves as the precise type of broken soul the Mazzik desires. 

In an early introductory scene, it’s explained that Mr. Litvak never left his New York City home, and that he complained of extreme agony when stepping foot outside the front door. Before the paranormal activity began, it’s a seemingly throwaway line chalked up to elderly eccentricities. The dementia-suffering Mrs. Litvak’s words initially dismissed as ramblings from a mind no longer present. However, when the haunting visions and eerie activity reaches a fever pitch, Yakov tries to flee the home only to crumble in pain, not even a block away. 

Much like Father Karras and Christian counterparts, Yakov’s final confrontation with his demon coincides with a renewed faith. Yakov arms himself with tefillin, leather boxes that contain scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah. With prayers and a candle, he wades into the dark bowels of the second floor to face the demon. Unlike Karras, Yakov survives his ordeal and comes out in a much healthier place, absolved of lingering guilt. It doesn’t end with Yakov returning to his Orthodox roots but forging a spiritual path for himself.

Perhaps the most intriguing question raised, however, is why did the Mazzik allow Yakov to see the video detailing how to stop it? The demon fed off of Mr. Litvak’s soul for fifty years, forcing him to relieve his pain, and it displayed a strong power over the household, after all. A late scene, near the end of the movie, shows an obscured, blurred figure behind Yakov on the stairs. It teases the idea that while Yakov appears to be free from its grasp, the demon might be free from the home its been tethered to for so long. It’s a subtle yet unnerving reminder that trauma never truly goes away, it just changes over time.

Thomas brings a new perspective to a familiar setup without sacrificing any scares. The ominous atmosphere and unsettling moments deliver the chills. The filmmaker also takes significant measures to ensure that this story is told in an accessible way. A familiar tale of demonic possession becomes enriched by its subtext of inherited generational traumas, and its core themes of guilt and religious obligation are inherently relatable regardless of beliefs. They’re universal.

Horror movies like The Unborn, 2012’s The Possession, and 2015’s Demon helped popularize the Dybbuk, a malicious possessing spirit. Thomas brings a much welcome change, eschewing evil ghosts to introduce wider audiences to underexplored demons and mythology. The Vigil seamlessly blends modernism with tradition and injects a familiar horror setup with a thrilling new perspective. The Mazzik is a reasonably obscure entity that teases a vast depth of untapped mythology to pull from for horror. That Thomas delivers such an unsettling, atmospheric debut full of memorable scare moments leaves you hoping that mythology’s deep well gets further explored sooner rather than later.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3654184/demonology-faith-vigil-spoiler/

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