Each year, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival offers a wide variety of films exploring stories from different walks of life and movies that resonate with diverse tastes. In this special Director’s Cut section of the AJT, we go behind the scenes with three directors and explore three very distinct and gripping films from the upcoming festival. We learn more about the directors’ creative process, their inspirations, and what they hope the audiences takes away from their films.
In his feature debut, Keith Thomas tells a supernatural Jewish horror tale with his film, “The Vigil.” It follows a young man, Yakov, who is estranged from his Brooklyn-based Orthodox Jewish community. Needing rent money, he agrees to serve as a shomer, one who looks after a dead body, for one of the deceased members of his former community. In doing so, Yakov sets himself up for a terrifying night with a malevolent spirit.
Jewish horror films are few and far between, but Thomas’ producers on the film, BoulderLight, are observant Jews who love to create horror films.
“There have been a handful of horror films that deal with Jewish mythology and monsters – most of them are about dybbuks, or evil ghosts,” Thomas said. “But they don’t necessarily take place in a Jewish milieu. For ‘The Vigil,’ I wanted to create a horror film that was specifically Jewish. That means one that took place in an observant community, had Yiddish dialogue, and addressed Jewish themes, but also had a universal appeal.”
Thomas has been a fan of horror from a young age. When it came time for him to make his first feature film, Thomas said he wanted to “find an original angle and, at the same time, create a film that felt personal – tackling themes of guilt and generational trauma.”
“The Vigil” opens with Yakov leading a support group for young Chasids that have left their faith. With the film taking place almost entirely at night, and plenty of atmospheric horror and well-timed jump scares, the film creates a sense of unease in the viewer that mirrors Yakov’s guilt about his decision to leave his faith. The malevolent spirit haunting him serves as a further vessel to drive home Yakov’s complex and often terrifying feelings.
The film has already begun to see success; it premiered in 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Blumhouse Productions saw it. Blumhouse produced several successful and well-known horror films such as “Paranormal Activity,” “The Purge,” and “Happy Death Day.”
Thomas said of his film, “This really was a passion project, and I was amazed at how deeply our team believed in it. We set out to make a unique film set in a world most audiences aren’t familiar with, and I’ve been blown away by how well it has been received.”