Those lucky enough to join the TIFF Midnight Madness crowd this year would have been treated to a unique take on the overnight haunt film, Keith Thomas’ The Vigil. Falling into the same category as popular demon films The Exorcist, The Conjuring, and Veronica, the biggest different between The Vigil and its cohorts is that The Vigil is Jewish. By leaning on Jewish demon lore, Thomas created a brand new spin on the haunts we know and love, creating something so much bigger than itself; a way to see Jewish traditions on screen, to reconcile and explore Jewish trauma, and use Jewish prayers and totems to fight demons.
In the film, Yakov (Dave Davis), a man who recently left the Hasidic community, is brought back for one night to act as a Shomer, someone who watches over a dead body until dawn to comfort the soul and make sure it doesn’t get lost before the body is in the ground. While standing vigil, Yakov senses he isn’t alone and that the body might be haunted by a demon.
As a Jewish horror fan, I was ecstatic to see these elements of my heritage on screen, so I was delighted to sit down with writer/director Keith Thomas to hash the elements out more.
Off the top, a Jewish horror movie, it’s your answer to an overnight haunt film. Tell me a bit about that and how that came to be.
Keith Thomas: I was a big horror fan going way, way, way back. I've been a screenwriter for a while. I kind of worked in lots of different genres, like teen, sci-fi, TV, drama, and things like that, and I’m a novelist. I think some of those books had horror elements, but horror was always my thing. I made the decision to go for the whole filmmaker thing that I'd dreamt of doing, but really hadn’t done. It felt like horror was definitely the place. My first real stab at it was a film called Arkane that was a short film, and then it became a feature script that made its way out and then kind of all at once stalled in that development hell sort of place.
Then it was like, “Okay, all right, that's getting out there, but it's not doing what I want.” I had to turn back inward and think, “Okay, if I'm going to do horror, what can I do easily that I know that feels unique?” I just went back to my Jewish roots. I was like, “Okay, this is interesting and hasn't been explored.” It was amazing that no one had done a shomer horror film. It's the perfect setup. I was like, “How has this not happened?” Then I did a little survey of the Jewish horror that's out there and realized that almost all of it is a Jewish demon or something like a dybbuk, or a golem that affects a non-Jewish family. In The Possession, they get a dybbuk box, and the dybbuk unleashes chaos to this family, but they're not Jewish. I thought, “Why don't we make a Jewish horror film in a Jewish community and have that be the setup? Once I'd written it, it was one of those things like, “Okay, well, who's going to actually make this?” Luckily, I found my producers who are both Orthodox Jews, and huge horror fans.
You talked about how you didn’t want to do the dybbuk or the golem. You used the mazik, not something people really know. Talk to me about the mazik.
Keith Thomas: It’s super obscure. In the ultra orthodox community, it's kind of a known thing. It gets a little complicated, but in demonology, they’re called the sheydim, which are the demons, that's plural. This is one of them. The trick with the mazik is, when I started out when I wanted a demon in this film, because I want to make that movie like The Conjuring, not a ghost, not a dybbuk, because that’s been done, let’s pick a demon. The problem was, they're really hard to find. There's very little reference to them. Not living in the Hasidic community, I had talked to people and they told me things, but I didn’t know. This is another movie, but there's a crazy audio tape that circulates among ultra Orthodox Jews, it has for decades. It's old, of an exorcism, where the demon is pulled from someone's toe. It's a crazy thing. It's not a mazik, but it's some other demon. It's nuts. It sounds super freaky when you hear it.
So then I was just trolling through lists. I came across the mazik, which means “destroyer,” which sounded cool. The only thing it says in the rabbinical texts—which, very few are translated into English, we're talking like 16th century stuff—[is that] they inhabit abandoned places. Some texts say that if you lay powder down around an abandoned house, you'll see chicken feet imprints, and that's the mazik. But chicken feet were not so scary. It was one of those things where I was like, “I like that name, ‘Destroyer.’” That's pretty cool. Then I had to create a whole cloth, like what the mazik would actually be and look like. I knew it did bad things. It was a demon. I could get into how it probably got there. But then I had to create what it looked like, because there were no descriptions.
You mentioned that you went to rabbinical school and you studied monsters.
Keith Thomas: I took a circuitous path here. I finished in film school before and in college, I studied film, but film theory. I was an English major, I taught for a while, and that's how I led to this Masters. It's a Masters in Religious Education at a rabbinical seminary in New York. I'm not a rabbi, and I couldn't help that I have a horror bend. When I got there and I had to do a thesis, my thesis was on monsters in Talmudic texts. Even though I didn't really do mazik stuff, it was more about Leviathan and about the various biblical monsters and the Nephilim, the giants and stuff like that. It's kind of funny. It was one of those things where my professors were like, “Oh, of course Keith’s doing the monsters thing.”
I like to go to my rabbi for any Jewish nerd stuff, and I asked if he knew this one, and I don’t think he did.
Keith Thomas: You can find some funky websites, some demonology websites, where you'll see it mentioned, but it's super obscure. Once I glommed on mazik, I went to a rabbi I know in Denver, who had actually studied demonology. He’s Canadian, actually a Canadian rabbi, I think he's from Toronto. But he, at rabbinical college, had studied demonology and was able to give me something for the movie. It's in the movie, you just hear very little of it in the videotape sequence in the basement. It's as Dave's going down the stairs, so it's kind of out of earshot. He gave me the whole life cycle of a demon, which is totally nuts and not what you would expect. Where do demons come from? How are demons created? What a demon is, what it does. I was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing.”
I interpreted that the mazik might have been symbolically an inherited trauma from the Holocaust. Can you tell me a bit about that choice?
Keith Thomas: For me, the big thing in terms of scares is making sure they're grounded in some sort of emotional resonance. I knew when we started that if it was just a guy in a house watching a body, and then there's a demon in there, we'd just end up with these scares, that while they can be jump scares, or whatever type of scare, they weren't going to land unless they connected to the character somehow. I got this idea that the way the mazik functions is by feeding on pain, and the way it does that is to bring bad memories back. Because it's been around so long, it's got a whole laundry list of bad memories it can pull from and some are [Yakov’s] and some aren't. There’s a scare in the basement sequence and that character that's appearing is a 19th century boy from a Pogrom. The mazik was pulling from all these memories. That was a big piece in terms of what the mazik would look like and how it would function.
Then it became interesting to explore trauma, particularly with Jews, but then just intergenerational trauma. How “un-worked through” trauma can beget more and more pain. It was a tough balance. I know with Yakov, I wanted to make sure that he could get over the fact that he felt guilt for the death that really impacted him, how he moved past that. That was the whole point of the thing. In terms of the Holocaust, it was trickier because I didn't want to suggest that it was time to get over it. It was more about how we process that trauma and that pain. There's a good and a bad way, I suppose, keeping the memory alive, but not letting it eat away at you too much. The mazik came to symbolize that.
This movie is obviously incredibly Yiddish. Talk to me about keeping Yiddish speakers in the film and keeping it really Yiddish.
Keith Thomas: In the scripting stage, we originally had it set somewhere else, but then when we decided it had to be in Brooklyn, the Yiddish aspect came in. We thought, “This is going to be fun to dive into it.” I don't speak Yiddish. The producers don't speak Yiddish. But we got really lucky in that we decided to cast everyone, for the most part, from the community. So, we had a lot of translators on set. Then, when we got Menashe [Lustig], on board, he really still maintains an actual foot in the community. He still lives there. He's kind of this odd bird in that he does movies, but lives there, which is kind of unacceptable in a lot of ways for a lot of community members.
I wanted to be as authentic as possible. If I went to see an Inuit horror film, it would need to be as authentic to that world as possible. I wouldn't want to see a film about a white guy going to an Inuit village and experiencing that stuff, I'd want to see somebody in the community experiencing something. So, once we set it in Borough Park, it was like, “This is going to be Yiddish.” In fact, a lot of Dave's dialogue became more and more Yiddish as we were in preproduction. Dave was getting more comfortable with the language and he spent so much time learning those lines and getting them down. A lot of times he would be like, “I want to translate this.” There's not necessarily improvisation, if it felt like this line should be in Yiddish, it was, “Okay, let’s do it.” It gave it that extra flavour of authenticity, but also there's interesting Yiddish expressions that don't translate into English as well, which Menashe really ran with, which was kind of fun.
You also brought up that Malky Goldman, who played Sarah, did a lot of Yiddish consulting.
Keith Thomas: Oh my god, she did so much. Malky and a woman named Chaya [Greenberg] both are straight out of the Hasidic community. They were our primary consultants. Malky not only was playing Sarah, but she was doing costuming and all of the outfits are straight out of stores in Borough Park. She helped make peyos, which she'd done for HBO, out of real human hair. She consulted on Yiddish, she helped Dave learn. The real trick, it’s not just the Yiddish, but the pronunciation of the Hebrew is incredibly different in the Hasidic community. The way they're pronouncing the Shema, or whatever it is, is totally different, and almost doesn't even sound the same. It was learning that.
Chaya focused on the apartment; if we’re going to make this a Hasidic home, here's what it has to have, [from] exactly where the mezuzahs were on the wall to everything. There are crazy little touches that you can barely see in the film. There's a coffee table in the main room where the body’s lying and on the coffee table is a little jar of candies. These are very specific candies to the neighborhood, where they come from. It’s really important to me that every drawer, if you open a drawer, open the closet in that house, you would see all the authentic things, even if we weren't going to look in there. I wanted the actors to be in that world as fully as possible. They were so crucial in making that happen.
We touched on Yakov’s guilt associated with the hate crime. Talk to me about portraying an anti-Semitic hate crime and how that felt and how that came to be with the state of 2019.
Keith Thomas: That comes from an incident that I witnessed myself. Not somebody cutting someone's peyos necessarily, but when I lived in New York, I saw some people harassing Hasidic kids on the street corner. It got ugly, it got ugly quickly in a way that I was kind of shocked by. It wasn't that long ago, but it stuck with me.
Nothing was done about it. It happened on a relatively busy street corner and nobody seemed to want to do anything. That was rough. I knew that when we were going to follow the scene like this, that I wanted to go there. It was really during the development of it, that it became more and more resonant, to everything that's happening. It came from both a personal place, and at the same time, I think New York's in an interesting place at the moment, particularly with the [Hasidic] community—they're kind of like Amish in the city. It's a weird sort of thing, where they're very insular and closed off, but they live in the biggest city in the United States. It's a funky thing. There's a lot of brushing up and rubbing up that's going on. I just wanted to show how things could take an ugly turn. I don't know if the bullies in the film, they're drunk, I don't know if they necessarily mean what they're doing. But it can easily spiral and I just wanted to touch on putting things into context in an interesting way, in terms of how these things can spiral.
I really loved the smartphone being used as a plot device. Can you talk a bit about that? It’s one of those things when you’re watching a movie, “Why can’t they just make that phone call?” I think it’s really interesting, how it’s 2019 and you have a guy new to using a smartphone in a way. Tell me a bit about using it.
Keith Thomas: When you're in that community, you feel like you're in the 19th century, because they dress like that and in a [lot] of ways they live like that. But they almost all have phones, which is a weird disconnect. I wanted to keep the film modern and the feel modern. So when Dave listens to his music, it's going to be modern electronic music. [With] the score, I really wanted a modern sort of thing that Michael [Yezerski], the composer, and I really touched on and so the phone became kind of a linchpin for that, a way to establish that. Zach [Kuperstein] the DP and I [decided] very early on to [not] show the screen of that phone. I wanted to put it on the walls. We wanted to make the thing feel modern and feel as though Yakov is both in the Hasidic old world and then modern and leaning towards modern and trying to get there. At the same time, I was like, “If we’ve got a phone, you're going to have to try to use it, he's going to have to try to call out. And how cool [would it] be if you manipulate those to build the scares from your one avenue to get out?”
That’s the scariest thing to me. I feel like there are similar things in Oculus. It scared me to the core, when she is on the phone and it doesn’t work out. So as soon as Yakov made that call, I was like, “Please don't be a trick. Don't, I can't take it.”
Keith Thomas: The sequence when he talked to his therapist was something that I had a nightmare about when I was 17. I’d been on this call. I was pouring out my guts to someone on the other end and then realized it
was the wrong person. I woke up from that dream just so haunted by it. So once we had the phone in the film, I was like, “I know exactly what I'm doing, how we're going to make that work.”
I want to talk about the scene where Yakov wraps tefillin before battling the mazik. I speak for myself in saying I started to weep, and I know some others who did as well. Tell me about that scene.
Keith Thomas: There are lots of layers to that scene. Number one was, I knew at that juncture in the film, this was like the moment where Dave had just gotten over the death that had been haunting him. It was time to confront his fear and his pain and the trauma head-on in that hallway. To get him there, he was going to have to find it with himself. We had this idea of the spiritual armor, and so what does that look like in Judaism? Initially, I was like, “We could do [it] like Evil Dead 2, this is the chainsaw moment.” I was thinking Dutch angles and smash cuts. Then I thought, “That's not gonna work.” It ended up being tefillin, which just made sense. I couldn't think of a film where you'd seen someone put it on. I wanted the tefillin to be the focus of it. Let's put it on and let’s have him do the prayers. David, of course, practiced and practiced and got the tefillin down.
At the same time, I wanted to tell this story of a family and the pogrom and tie it into history. But what made it interesting was, he had this scene with the corpse on the stretcher, so he had blood on his shirt, and I was like, “How cool would it be if his shirt is bloody, he puts on tefillin, lights the candle to face this demon, and we go with a crazy modern, synth kind of thing happening and get it louder and louder and louder?” I think that tendency would be like, “This is where we hit the violins.” I thought, “If we're going to go for this, we’ve got to fully go for it.” It was funny, because there are, of course, rules around when you can put tefillin on, you have to basically see dawn. It was right around dawn, and you had a moment where he looks out the window. You don't see it. We were getting this as close as possible as we can. It felt right. It felt fresh and new and something different. The tefillin that is used is one of the producer’s grandfather's tefillin. It’s got all these crazy layers to it. When we shot that, it just felt badass. When he turns and looks at the camera, and he's got it on, it was was like, “Oh my god, he's gonna kick ass in this thing.”
To me, it was like watching a fighter wrap their fists before putting on boxing gloves.
Keith Thomas: Like stretching the leather—that and the Shema in the hallway. Dave got really emotional in those moments, using faith in its purest form to elevate himself. He's facing this thing he doesn't want to face and so he needs to elevate himself. What are the tools that he knows coming from that community to do that? We can use these physical tools like the tefillin, which is like this core concept of binding, then use the central prayer of all Judaism and use those as the weapons. So he's got the flame, he's got the armor, and then he's got the sword of the Shema. It was a super fun sequence to do.
What's your favorite scary movie?
Keith Thomas: Look, it's kind of a standard answer, but I really, really love The Shining. I love The Shining for lots of reasons. They called it the first epic horror. It certainly feels epic in scope. There are lots of reasons I love it.
But when I think of just a personal one—here, I'll throw this one out there. There's a Swedish film called The Visitors. I don't think many people have seen it. I found it as a kid in a VHS box. I'm pretty sure it had one of those VHS boxes that either lit up, the eyes lit up when you squeezed it, or maybe it had a hologram on it. Anyway, it was a funky box. I was like, “That's cool, I want to see this film.” It’s terribly dubbed, it's one of the worst dub jobs you've ever seen. It's basically about a family that moves into this house and it's haunted by what, is kind of obscure, but there's some really amazing scares in it, that I hadn't seen, and still to this day, haven't really seen duplicated. A lot of the scares revolved around showing you a space and then showing you the space again and revealing that there's been something in there the whole time that you didn't notice. It's those scares—I love those. So that was one that I must have showed some people on the crew, at least parts of that movie. But again, that was a formative one, The Visitors.
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