I recently had the pleasure of taking off an entire week from work to do Nothing – casually filling my time with movies, meals, and household chores instead of cramming those activities into the tight crevices between pushing papers & sleep. It was a necessary, restorative break from my usual routine, one I’ve been reluctant to indulge in since the pandemic-era version of a “vacation” really just means extended time alone on my couch. I managed to watch 18 feature films over that 10-day stretch, sometimes cramming in four a day and sometimes watching none at all to make room for “social” activities like podcasting and watching pro wrestling with friends. As a result, most of the films didn’t have much space to stand out as anything distinctly noteworthy (with the major exceptions of Hackers and Pig), but I did notice some striking similarities shared between a few of the pairings. Without a doubt, the most highly specific, niche double feature in that week-long binge was Shiva Baby & The Vigil: two incredibly tense new releases set at Jewish funeral rituals. Neither stood out to me as personal best-of-the-year material the way I hoped. Still, they were both impressively energetic, nerve-racking debuts from first-time filmmakers, and their shared Jewish funeral rites context only underlined their strengths as a pair.
I’d feel much worse about lumping these two unique, otherwise unrelated films together purely for their shared religious context if that overlap hadn’t already been covered by other blogs (most notably the Jewish outlet Alma‘s post “A New Kind of Jewish Horror Film Has Arrived“). Shiva Baby in particular suffers the most in that pairing, since the film is already fighting off frequent comparisons as the Jewish, bisexual version of Krisha. To be fair, Shiva Baby is a lot more similar to Krisha than it is to The Vigil, at least in terms of its tone & genre. Set at a shiva ceremony following a distant relative’s passing, a college student & sex worker finds herself trapped at a nightmarishly awkward “party” with her parents, her ex-girlfriend, her Sugar Daddy, his wife, and their baby – struggling to keep them all apart so they don’t accidentally tattle on her triple-life. A low-budget, 77min immersion in the sweaty panic of that disastrous wake, there’s a lot going on in Shiva Baby that directly recalls the familial tensions of the Thanksgiving-from-Hell setting of Krisha, right down to the winding tension of their plucked-strings scores. I just don’t remember Trey Edwards Shults’s film being so Funny. Writer-director Emma Seligman makes Shiva Baby so painfully, overwhelmingly awkward that it transforms into a kind of black comedy. At the very least, she wouldn’t have cast Fred Melamed & Jackie Hoffman in bit parts unless she was aiming to wring out some laughs, no matter how dark. The film even ends with all the main players converging into one cramped, chaotic space like a true farce, capturing the feeling of when your life is going so catastrophically bad that all you can do is laugh to release the tension.
The Vigil is much shorter on laughs. It relieves its own dramatic tension in a much more traditional, straightforward way – aiming for classic haunted house scares that just happened to be staged in a highly specific cultural context. Whereas the shiva ceremony of Seligman’s film is a post-funeral celebration & communal mourning, Keith Thomas’s haunted house horror covers the time before a funeral, when an assigned “shomer” sits vigil with the deceased so their body is never left alone. In this case, a recent defector from an extremist form of Orthodox Judaism is reluctantly roped back into his old community as a one-night shomer for a total stranger, because he desperately needs a paycheck. The premise is perfect for a horror film, locking a freaked-out shomer alone in a spooky house with a dead body while supernatural happenings creep in from the darkness. The Vigil manages to cram a lot of unexpected details into that straight-forward set-up too: cult-deprogramming, Evil Internet tech, found footage video cassettes, body horror, demons, etc. It reminded me most of the recent movies Demon (2016) & The Power (2021), but it does a great job in setting itself apart from them in its mood & scares, even beyond the specificity of its cultural context. It would especially make for great Halloween Season programming, breaking up the usual cultural settings of by-the-books haunted house movies while still delivering the expected beats & scares of its genre (as indicated by its distribution under the Blumhouse brand).
If you’re looking for a film that’s invested in the specifics of traditional Jewish funeral rites, The Vigil is probably the more rewarding programming choice of this pair. I personally found Shiva Baby to be the more promising debut, but its context as A Jewish Film was more generalized & cultural than The Vigil‘s. If nothing else, it plays with the same buttoned-up comedic tension of non-Jewish films like Death at a Funeral, just with a younger, harsher edge. It’s incredibly cool that both films were able to find proper funding & distribution around the same time to reach audiences outside the festival circuit, which is typically where culturally-specific films like this premiere and then immediately disappear. I look forward to a time when there are enough films set in these types of niche cultural environments that they’re no longer a novelty as pairings. For now, the significance of their cultural overlap helped them stand out among all the other, more familiar movie premises I drifted through during my on-the-couch vacation – even more so than their shared penchant for chokehold dramatic tension.