Directed by: Marcin Wrona.
Written by: Pawel Maslona & Marcin Wrona.
Starring: Itay Tiran (Piotr 'Pyton'), Agnieszka Zulewska (Zaneta), Andrzej Grabowski (Father of Zaneta), Tomasz Schuchardt ('Jasny'), Katarzyna Herman (Gabryjelska), Adam Woronowicz (Doctor), Wlodzimierz Press (Teacher), Tomasz Zietek (Ronaldo), Cezary Kosinski (Priest), Katarzyna Gniewkowska (Zofia).
The Polish film Demon is not a typical horror film, although it has all the trappings of one. It is, after all, about a man who on the night before his wedding, during a rainstorm, stumbles into a hole, where he discovers a skeleton. No one else sees the skeleton, and are skeptical about his story – and yet, there’s no denying that strange things start happening to the groom on his wedding – he has been possessed by a dybbuk – and for those of you who haven’t seen the Coen Brothers A Serious Man – first of all, see it – and second of all, that is a Jewish ghost of a sort – a curse on the man. As the wedding, and the reception, go forward the groom continues to act more and more strange – writhing on the floor, screaming in terror and on and on. Meanwhile, the bride’s family is trying to convince their guests that everything is fine – there’s no problem, etc. The film is almost more of a pitch black comedy than a horror film – one with a lot to say about Poland and its past, and uses horror elements almost matter-of-factly. It’s one of the most interesting horror films of the year – and sadly the last film from promising director Marcin Wrona, who committed suicide shortly after premiering the film at various festivals in 2015. While Demon isn’t quite a great film – there’s more than enough here to conclude that Wrona, had he continued to work, would have made some.
The groom in the film is Piotr (Itay Tiran) – and he’s not even Polish, but English. He’s just arrived in Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) - after a very quick courtship. She is insisting that they marry at the farm that has been in their family for decades – and he has no problem with that. While Piotr and Zaneta seem to be in love – and he gets along well with her brother – her parents, who wish she was marrying a Pole, aren’t quite as receptive. For his part, Piotr tries his best to fit in – tries to drink as much as everyone else, and be one of the gang, but he clearly isn’t. He’s pretty much along at the wedding – that is attended by the close-knit community – of whom know each other, and presumably, everyone’s secrets.
At first, Piotr just seems slightly odd – and people want to dismiss it as having too much to drink, etc. But as the film progresses, and his behavior becomes more bizarre, his new bride’s family tries to hide him away – bring in one man after another to examine him (a doctor, a Priest, a Professor) and try to figure out what’s wrong with him. Meanwhile, Zaneta’s father repeatedly addresses the guests with versions of “Nothing to see here” – that get increasingly bizarre as the film progresses.
Demon, like most great horror movies, is about far more than its plot – it is an allegory for Poland itself, and makes no secret of that. The film shares something in common with Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) – another film that asks Poland to reckon with their past – particularly their treatment of Jews. After all, why is a Jewish dybbuk even at the farm owned by a Catholic family for decades?
Although the film is a horror film, it’s never particularly scary. The opening scenes – the night before the wedding – are unsettling, but never cross that line into terrifying, and nothing that happens at the wedding in scary in a traditional horror movie way. Instead, the film is looking to be more unsettling than anything – and not just in the way it deals with the horror elements, but also in the way it deals with the comedy. This isn’t a film that makes you laugh out loud, but it does make you wince.
I do think the film kind of peters out in the last half hour or so – as if Wrona has to extend the proceedings a little to get to a proper runtime. The film does recover nicely with a fine, ambiguous ending – but there’s a little too much standing around late in the film – a few too many repetitions. But overall, Demon is a hell of a memorable movie - and it’s sad we’ll never get to see how Wrona would have followed it up.