With a title like Demon and a plot involving a groom becoming possessed by a potentially evil spirit on the night of his wedding, one would be forgiven for expecting a horror film from this Polish-Israeli co-production. But the last film from late Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona is something a lot more subtextual and far more intellectually terrifying, relying on repressed memories and dark history more than visceral shocks. Based on a stage play called from playwright Piotr Rowicki, Wrona and co-screenwriter Pawel Maslona’s Demon is more about the spectres the characters can’t see than the one right in front of their faces.
Peter (Itay Tiran) has travelled from London to the Polish countryside to marry his beloved, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewaska). His future father-in-law (Andrzej Grabowski) and loutish, borderline bullying brother-in-laws don’t seem entirely keen on the union, but they pretend to be nice to Peter. They don’t think the couple has known each other long enough, and they think Zaneta’s desire to get married at her grandfather’s beloved, but neglected farmhouse isn’t the best idea. Peter, wanting to make the wedding as great as possible for his wife, begins fixing up the property before the big day.
One day not too long before the ceremony, Peter starts hallucinating and becoming somewhat feverish and paranoid after finding what he thinks was a skeleton in a hole that seems to mysteriously dig and fill itself in without explanation. The pomp and ceremony part of the wedding goes off without a hitch, but at the booze fuelled reception, Peter starts coming unglued. When Peter’s conditions to a point where he’s convulsing, bleeding, and suddenly speaking in German and Hebrew (two languages he doesn’t know), some of the partygoers start to believe that the groom has become possessed by a dybbuk, a sprit from Jewish folklore who needs to reach some sort of closure with their past life before moving on. When the spirit fully takes over, it’s up to Zaneta to try and put the spirit at peace, receiving very little useful help from her family.
Instead of mounting a gross, brooding, or bloody tale of demonic possession, Wrona crafts a nuanced, slow burning look at cultural scars and shames that will never fully heal or be forgotten. There’s a clearly defined arc of dramatic escalation to Demon, but one that genre audiences might not expect. There’s a three act structure – the preparations for the wedding, then the wedding and reception, and then how the reception changes once those close to Peter realize what he’s experiencing – but none of these acts are particularly flashy, and the final act is the least kinetic of all. Just as audiences would likely be expecting some sort of rousing, scary showdown between good and evil, they’re instead treated to a character drama revolving around a character that has been dead for quite some time.
Those well versed in Polish history won’t find the film’s revelation about the spirit and the history of the land all that surprising once it hits, but it’s not so much about who the unwanted spirit is and more about what the spirit and the party it’s crashing represents. The longer Wrona’s film goes on, the more it feels like watching a play unfold, both for better and sometimes for worse. The script starts including a lot more speeches and moral posturing, and does away with the fluid style and eerie pacing of everything that precedes the big reveal. It becomes a lot more static, but a lot more thoughtful.
The demon that has cast a shadow over the wedding serves as a reminder of the property’s past and Poland’s collective inability to remember some of the darkest moments in the country’s history, something that isn’t just a Polish problem, but something found in the selective memory of cultures worldwide. Only a few people (including a delusional, alcoholic, atheist doctor, an elderly former professor, and a local Christian priest) pay attention to what the spirit has to say, each reacting in different ways that will alter their perceptions of the party drastically. Zaneta tries to appease the spirit as best she can, simply wanting her husband to come back to her safely. Meanwhile, Zaneta’s family tries to convince everyone else at the party to stick around, get as drunk as possible, and act like nothing is wrong. Zaneta’s dad continually tells everyone lies so they can forget about the groom’s “ailment” and party with complete impunity.
Demon could be correctly seen on some slighter levels about how weddings can bring about personal biases or a difference between rational and religious thought, but it’s most intriguing in its depiction of drunkenness as a metaphor for groupthink, delusion, and general apathy. There are people at the party who know exactly what’s going on with Peter and the land they’re all revelling on, and they repress it in a bid to make sure that no one cares. It’s historically and culturally loaded, especially for a Polish film, bordering on incendiary.
That’s a feeling that few horror films can accomplish, and despite a handful of nerve-wracking and unsettling moments, I wouldn’t classify it within that genre. Wrona’s film is a drama, but also patently unclassifiable. Bolstered by physically demanding and sympathetic leading performances from Tiran and Zulewaska, the power Demon can have on a patient, well-read viewer is immeasurable. It has the power to scare viewers into a righteous moral outrage.
Sadly, Demon will mostly likely be known as the tragic, eerily ironic epilogue to Wrona’s career. The same week Demon made its world premiere at TIFF last year to critical acclaim, the filmmaker committed suicide in a Polish hotel room shortly before the film screened in its country of origin. For many, personal readings behind the filmmakers motivations to make Demon will be unavoidable. Out of respect for Wrona’s memory and what I believe to be an honest artistic attempt to adapt Demon’s source material, I don’t feel comfortable going down that road of critical reading. It can be done very easily, but the longer lasting implications of the politics and history brought up in Demon will stick with viewers far longer than any theorizing over the young director’s tragic end.
Demon opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, September 30, 2016.
Check out the trailer for Demon: