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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Vigil (Blu-ray)
Vigil (Blu-ray)
Arrow Video // Unrated // June 26, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted June 20, 2018 | E-mail the Author

New Zealand filmmaker Vincent Ward is likely best known stateside as the director of What Dreams May Come, or perhaps as the original story writer of the flawed but fascinating Alien 3. Not exactly the most bulletproof resume (I like 'em both just fine), but Ward's imaginative eye for detail was there right from the start with Vigil (1984), his feature-length debut that doubled as New Zealand's first accepted entry at the Cannes Film Festival. It's a prickly, minimalist drama with few characters, lots of suspense, and an ultra-low budget aided by great production design. If not for the occasional glimpse of a car, sewing machine, or other modern conveniences, Vigil make have taken place 500 years ago.

Vigil's core plot is threadbare and very light on dialogue, favoring visual exposition and reaction shots over surface-level conversations. Our story is largely told from the perspective of Lisa "Toss" Peers (Fiona Kay), a plucky 11-year-old who witnesses the death of her father Justin (Gordon Shields) while the two are out hunting hawks on a nearby mountaintop. At the precise moment of his death, a hulking stranger named Ethan Ruir (Frank Whitten) appears and carries Justin's body back to their remote, tumble-down farm in the valley. Not surpsingly, Toss' mother Elizabeth (Penelope Stewart) has mixed emotions: grateful for the stranger's help, uneasy about his stoic personality, and furious about her husband's untimely death. Grandpa Birdie (Bill Kerr) is the only remaining farmhand and seems eager to hire Ethan as an assistant, but Elizabeth is obviously reluctant to accept his mysterious stranger into their lives so suddenly.

Toss, meanwhile, becomes almost feral during the next few weeks: whatever ill feelings her mother has about Ethan are multiplied tenfold, she has more violent outbursts than actual conversations, and it's not long until she's convinced that the stranger is Satan incarnate. Yet she's also confused about herself: Toss is nearing young womanhood and, like her mother, lets emotion get the best of her better judgment during this stressful time in her life. As her mother finally softens towards Ethan and the two begin a relationship, her hatred for the outsider reaches a boiling point.

At first glance, Vigil doesn't always make a great deal of sense when read as a straightforward narrative: the characters behave oddly at times -- both due to their regional dialects and what they don't say -- and this makes them almost unpredictable and, by extension, kind of tough to root for. There are no traditional heroes or villains to be found, just an initial tragedy (Justin's death) and the downward spiral of fallout in its wake. There's a brief but idyllic sense of joy near the beginning that's almost completely lost as Vigil wears on, creating more of a post-apocalyptic atmosphere than a traditional family drama. Though it may be hard for new viewers to understand and appreciate, there's no doubt that the low budget, excellent production design, and small cast all work in the film's favor. That, and a certain timeless charm brought upon by its other-worldly atmosphere and almost complete lack of modern technology.

Rough around the edges but ultimately intriguing, Vigil looks great on Blu-ray thanks to the fine folks at Arrow Video. This marks the film's first domestic release in more than 20 years; to the best of my knowledge, the last NTSC edition of Vigil was a VHS tape from Fox Lorber back in October 1997. (That's closer to the film's theatrical debut than the present day, if you really want to feel old.) Either way, Arrow's Blu-ray is a well-rounded disc that die-hard fans will clearly enjoy, both for its top-quality A/V presentation and a short but sweet collection of new and vintage bonus features.

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Vigil (which is presumably identical to their Region B Blu-ray released only a few weeks ago) looks fantastic with bold colors, strong image detail, and a thick coating of natural film grain. The blacks run deep and, when combined with some of the film's frugal indoor lighting and severe weather conditions, look a little on the crushed side. But, like a few trace amounts of print damage and softness, these are likely source material issues and not the result of heavy tinkering. Vigil has terrific visuals served well by its lush New Zealand landscapes (just look at those greens!) and a healthy bit rate, and overall looks outstanding in high definition. For even the most die-hard fans who have owned it on multiple formats, this will be like seeing it for the first time.

NOTE: The images on this page do not necessarily represent the title under review.

Arrow's DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio presentation of Vigil's original mono mix sounds just fine under the circumstances: there's a solid amount of presence and even depth at times, with clear dialogue that's balanced nicely without fighting for attention. Jack Body's mostly electronic score doesn't get more than a few minutes of screen time but also sounds good, even though it firmly places Vigil in the era of its release and occasionally distracts. Optional English subtitles are included during the main feature only, which may help those who have trouble with the regional accents.

The menus are smooth and functional with clips and music from the film plus access to subtitle setup and bonus features (no chapter selection, but there are 13). This one-disc release is packaged in Arrow's standard stocky keepcase with attractive reversible cover artwork on both sides and a nice Booklet with an essay and a few promotional photos.

Not much on paper, but what's here is quality stuff that fans will enjoy. First up is an Interview with film critic Nick Roddick (13:22), who talks about Vigil's unique place in the country's cinematic history, financial tricks used by the industry, Vincent Ward's career as a director, his creative process, producer John Maynard's involvement, showing the film at Cannes, and much more. Up next is On-Set Footage from the film -- still known by its original title First Blood, Last Rites -- as seen on the long-running New Zealand television program Country Calendar (14:18). There's a wealth of great footage here, giving us a nice inside look at Vigil's beautiful exteriors while a handful of scenes are being shot.

Also here is a brief but enjoyable excerpt from the 1987 Kaleidoscope television documentary New Zealand Cinema: The Past Decade (7:28) featuring a interview segment with Vincent Ward and a narrated overview of the film. Finally, we get the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:14); it's presented in cropped 1.33:1 but looks to be in very good condition.

Vigil is a prickly, turbulent drama that keeps viewers at arm's length despite its remote locale, low budget, and small cast of characters. It's a tough nut to crack for sure, but one that draws in new viewers with its fantastic visuals and rewards those willing to read between the lines. I can't say I loved it the first time through, but it's certainly grown on me since then. Not surprisingly, Arrow's new Blu-ray package offers a fantastic A/V presentation that showcases the film's rich colors and includes a short but valuable collection of bonus features. Newcomers may want to rent this first, but those who have seen and enjoyed Vigil in the past will love digging through it again. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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