How ‘The Vigil’ Director Keith Thomas Made a Jewish Genre Film

We spoke to ‘The Vigil’ writer-director Keith Thomas about his (un)Orthodox genre debut, his love of Skinny Puppy, and the delicate art of spider wrangling.
BoulderLight Pictures
By  · Published on September 20th, 2019

The Vigil passes one spine-tingling night with Yakov (Dave Davis), a spiritually and financially compromised former Hasid, who recently left his sectarian Jewish community. Lured by the promise of rent money, Yakov agrees to take a job as a shomer, keeping watch over the recently-deceased body of Mr. Litvak, a Holocaust survivor, until it can be collected for burial in the morning. Sure, the original shomer abandoned his post, but it’s easy money! What could go wrong? Turns out a lot! Sure enough, Yakov finds himself toe-to-toe with a dybbuk, a Yiddish spirit hell-bent on making Yakov’s night a living hell.

Genre film is replete with plenty of single-location spook-fests, but The Vigil’s unique context makes for a unique viewing experience for even the biggest Blumhouse fan.

We sat down with writer/director Keith Thomas to chat about the film. Our conversation begins with a peek into how he went from rabbinical school to directing a Midnight Madness entry. From there we discuss Evil Dead II, the delicate art of spider wrangling, and how to make a spiritual horror film rooted in traditional Jewish beliefs that still feels modern.

With Thomas fresh off a streak of Midnight Madness viewings, we kicked things off by checking in with his thoughts on the Toronto International Film Festival’s genre program.

The following contains minor spoilers for The Vigil.

What did you think of [Midnight Madness selection] Color Out of Space?

Color I was a little closer to because I’m a big Richard Stanley fan. 

Stanley’s Hardware was at Midnight Madness in 1990. Isn’t that wild?

I know, it’s absolutely nuts. And then my editor, Brett [W. Bachman], was the same editor [on Color Out of Space]. He has three films here, which is nuts. But yeah I’ve loved the Midnight Madness films. Saint Maud I thought was great. 

The Vast of Night is fantastic. 

I know! Didn’t that play at Sundance or something?

It was at Slamdance. 

I gotta see it. It’s actually a really funny story. I was at a “TIFF Midnight Madness cocktails” event, and I was talking to Peter [Kuplowsky] and he was like, “Keith you’ve got to meet the producers of Vast of Night.” So I talked to them and asked about the film, and the lead from The Vigil came over — Dave Davis — and he said “hi” to me and then he saw them and was like, “Guys!” And he hugged them. And it turned out they had also produced Bomb City, which is the movie I saw that led to Dave. It was a crazy coincidence. 

What an incestuous little festival. 

Yeah, isn’t that funny? Texas producers who made those two films ended up making The Vigil possible because of Dave. 

Well, speaking of making The Vigil possible, how did you go from rabbinical school to making a horror film? What’s that story?

I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was younger. I don’t think I was defeatist but I just had no idea how to get there from Denver. I assumed you need connections, and this, that, and the other thing, and so it just didn’t seem practical to me. And even though I was super into it in high school, and continued to be, I ended up doing pre-med in college. I took a few detours, one of which was going to rabbinical school, where I did a masters in education and during that realized that I didn’t want to run a Jewish day school  [and] that the medical thing was probably better. So then I went and did pre-med again, and that’s when I did clinical research for about 10 years, working with pediatric asthma and then people with Alzheimer’s and things like that.

Did any of your experience in pre-med come into play with The Vigil?

One hundred percent. It’s found its way into almost everything that I’ve worked on.

You and George Miller! He has a medical background too!

[laughing] I did clinical research in nursing homes for probably about five years where I worked with Alzheimer’s patients and I would visit them monthly, at the minimum, but sometimes bi-monthly. I just spent a lot of time talking to them. And I would see what would happen over the course of a year. So that was a huge part of The Vigil when that was coming up with Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen). Cause there’s a scary aspect to it that’s not necessarily like “it’s a scary old lady,” but the most frightening thing about it is the idea that you can be yourself and if your memory goes, you go. That you are nothing without your memory. 

Which is totally fascinating considering how interested this film is in confronting the past and sitting with it. And you do when that becomes increasingly impossible.

You know, the traditional trope in these horror films is there’s always “the expert.” The demonologist expert they call on Skype. So I thought it would be interesting if she could be the person to explain what’s happening. But because she’s demented and because you can’t trust her judgment, we’re not sure how it all fits into what’s real and what’s not. 

I found that a lot of the really affecting scenes with Dave are when he feels as though he is having issues sussing out what was happening and what wasn’t. 

It’s a tricky piece. We’ve got the mental illness components and [we’re] trying to be respectful but also be true to the experience and what that feels like. 

And there’s still always that grounding in genre. I felt a couple of intertextual ties, but I’d love to know if there’s any that you’re partial to. 

One big touchpoint was Jacob’s Ladder, visually. I sent that to Zach [Kuperstein], the DP, and he hadn’t seen it. And as soon as he saw it, he was like, “Oh I can see how this is working.” The other one was Angel Heart, which is about memory and about reality as we know it, but then it has this sort of rich texture in terms of the look of the film. There’s another one from 1981 called Possession

Oh, totally

It was a matter of taking a lot of horror tropes and trying to put them through that filter, this kind of Jewish lens. I wanted to keep it fresh, this Jewish conception, while at the same time having scares that are kind of universal and primal. So the trick was not diluting either side. 

Yeah, there are a lot of entryways that feel very familiar within genre more broadly but this is also a very niche project. The Vigil is a deep cut. What was the process of making something this specific? How do you even pitch something like this?

I got very lucky. I definitely had folks who were like, “I’ll buy this, and we’ll rework it.” And I was like nope, and I need to direct it. They could see something in it, but they couldn’t necessarily see what I wanted to make. So, my manager is like, “I happen to know these guys who are orthodox jews that make horror films. And if anybody is going to be into this, it’s them.” I walked into their office and there were Freddy Kreuger cut-outs and Lucio Fulci posters everywhere, and there are these two guys with their yamakas, and I was just like, “Oh my god, you guys.” And they were like, “We get this, and we are going to make this. This is us.” And the nice thing was that they were super, super protective of what I wanted to do. There was never a point where they were like, “Keith you have to explain this.” They just wanted to keep things as authentic as possible, even though there might be some stuff lost on the audience. But I like that aspect. 

You can feel the community fingerprints all over this film, in front of the camera and behind it. It felt very inevitable to me, and it sounds like logistically, and in terms of what the story was trying to accomplish, that was the case. 

To me, it was always a horror film. When I first started talking to the producers [I told them], “Yes, it’s a Jewish film. It’s going to have this Jewish aspect, but it is a horror film first and I need the scares to land.” For me, the sequence that most embodies this is from the time he sits down with his headphones in until he’s gagging in the kitchen. Like that stretch of just him in the chair. That was the film.

So last night was the premiere. Were there any expected or unexpected reactions?

That is what I was most anxious about: are people going to react at the right moment with the right thing? I was very pleased with it. There was laughter

I actually want to talk about the laughter. It’s very hard not only to do comedy that gets a laugh but then to get that laugh in a horror film that then doesn’t let the wind out of the bag. There were some laughs in The Vigil that I thought did that so well. 

It was all scripted, but it was subtle enough on the page that I wasn’t sure how it would play until we did it. For example, when [Davis’ character, Yakov] is texting, we did everything practically on set. And when he’d be texting, he would type in “h-e-y” and then press a period. And we were like, that was not in the script, but it’s funny.

It killed. 

Yeah, people loved it and it made sense for his character. I really wanted the film to be grounded in true human reactions. Every time I’d write [a scare] and we’d think it through, I’d be like, “Here’s what a horror film character would do, [and] if I saw this and I’m sitting here — and we’re doing it practically so you can see it, literally — how would I react?” It would be disbelief. 

Well speaking of the film’s practical effects, was doing everything practically an intentional choice or something that happened circumstantially?

It was definitely an intentional choice. There’s just a weight and a sort of gravity to things that are real in-camera. 

So even that spider was real?

Yes. It was funny, we had a spider wrangler on set. It was very unfortunate, we had a wolf spider in the script and the wolf spider passed away the day before the shoot. I think of old age. The wrangler was very sad, but he was like, “I’ve got these other spiders.” And I was like, “Alright let me see them,” because I hate when I see a movie and it’s supposed to be a spider and it’s a tarantula. Why is there this tarantula crawling around this house? We’re not in Ecuador, what is that? So I knew it had to be a true house spider. So it ended up being a baby tarantula species that looked very much like a wolf spider. So [it was] very real, and Dave is in fact very terrified of spiders. 

Were you like, “Excellent”?

Oh my god, I was so excited. So it was one of those things where you let it loose and of course it goes the wrong direction and you have to wrangle it. So I was like, “Dave I need you to sit still. I need this spider to touch you.” And he was like [laughing], and of course, what happens is the spider got him and he jumped and all that was the take. He truly jumped. And of course, the spider ran into that chair. And wouldn’t come out. And Dave was like, “Unless we find that spider, I am not sitting [in that chair].” So we had to take the chair apart and find the spider. 

I also want to tell you how much I enjoyed the soundtrack. 

Yeah. Michael [Yezerski] did such a great job. One of the things we talked about initially was do you go with a traditional orchestral thing, do you hit Jewish themes, and I wanted it to feel modern. When Micheal and I started talking about the score it was like, look, I would love to pull from my own personal taste, which is more electronic and dark. One thing we had a shared love of was Skinny Puppy and industrial music. So we kind of went there. And there are some sounds in there that are whistles and things that sound like — in the Jewish new year, there’s the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn. We tried to use some of those elements but twisted them. And then my favorite part of the score is when [Yakov] puts on the tefillin, which is this very ancient. super important ritual of re-affirming your own belief in monotheism. And what Micheal came up with, he was like, “The traditional way would be [to] do a sort of violin and oboes sort of thing and make this sound very religious.” And he was like, “I want to go full-electronic and make it spacey and crazy,” and I was just like, “I love it!”

Which means you’re sitting there as an audience member and you’re like, “Oh, this is an Evil Dead chainsaw arm moment.” Like: hell yeah. 

And that’s totally how Dave approached it. Dave was like, “I’m putting on armor. This is the battle.” And I was like, this is perfect, he’s got a bloody shirt, he’s putting on the tefillin, and we did a low-angle shot. And I was totally like, oh my god it’s Evil Dead II. And then when Micheal came up with this spacey electronic music, it was like, “Yes that’s our big battle moment.” 

There’s such a long history of stuck-in-a-house genre films and spiritual horror. But I think a lot like Dave’s character, The Vigil has a foot in a lot of different ponds and is torn between a couple of different worlds. I think it offers something totally unique while still having plenty of familiar stuff that people can latch on to. 

That’s exactly what we were going for. Nothing like this film existed before and we need to have something like this. 

Any plans for what comes next?

I do have another Jewish horror film idea around Lillith. I don’t think that has been done yet properly. Horror’s my thing. That’s the well. 

It’s a great well. Thanks so much for speaking with us. 

My pleasure. 

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.