Demon

Poland (2015) Dir. Marcin Wrona

There is a tragic backstory to this Polish horror film – director Marcin Wrona committed suicide during the Gdynia Polish Film Festival where it was being shown in competition. The press reported Wrona’s death as the result of depression, alcohol, stress, etc. but an interview shortly filming was completed sees Wrona confessing the pressure and heavy subject matter of this film invited “suicidal atmosphere”.

Not that we’ll ever know if this was the true reason for Wrona taking his own life but it does lend itself to corroborating the long held speculation/superstition that working on horror films can be a traumatic experience for some. Demon is a film based on the old Jewish legend of the Dybbuk, a wandering spirit that possesses bodies of the living until it has accomplished whatever it was doing when death interrupted them.

After working in London for a few years, Piotr (Itay Tiran) returns to Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), a woman he’s only met over the internet via her brother Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt). The wedding reception and the couples’ new home are on the overrun rural estate belonging to Zaneta’s grandfather. While digging in the yard the night before the wedding Piotr discovers a skeleton but keeps this to himself.

When the big day arrives, instead of enjoying his nuptials, Piotr is struck by nosebleeds, a nagging fever and exhibits similarly erratic behaviour. Then during his speech, Piotr refers to his new bride as “Hana” just as a woman in a wedding dress (Maria Debska) appears whom he doesn’t know yet somehow recognises. After suffering a fit thought to be epilepsy Piotr starts speaking in Yiddish, an elderly Jewish guest (Wlodzimierz Press) realises it is something far worse.

Demon is a bit of a hard sell, as arthouse horror has proven unable to completely satisfy the two niche audiences it would appeal. That is not to say it won’t have its admirers but the scope is rather small, depending on how much one understands what Wrona is aiming for with this film or the depth of their knowledge of Jewish folklore.

The horror element is underplayed in that there are no scares, definitely no gore, or even any psychological tension to the point it becomes almost irrelevant, although this is down to the fact it revolves around demonic possession. Instead, the spookiness comes from the chameleon-esque performance from Itay Tiran.

It has also been suggested this is a comedy but the humour is imperceptibly subtle for the most part and what there is that is discernible is coal black, but luckily not related to Piotr’s issues. Wrona instead uses the clichés of the gradually collapsing wedding to have some fun, turning it from an unfortunate rainy day salvaged by the warmth of bucolic community spirit to a farcical nightmare.

Vodka flows with a frequency to match the torrential rain outside, bad jokes are cracked during the speeches, and equally bad music provides the soundtrack for the horrendous dancing. When the barn becomes unable to withhold the rain, the celebrations are moved to the smaller house and it is admittedly amusing to see a partying throng trying to Hokey Cokey in a cramped living room!  

But Wrona’s intentions are not to entertain us with a pitch black version of a Carry On wedding film, the centrifugal supernatural hub is one born out of personal meaning for the Polish and the Jewish. With Poland being the first victim of Hitler’s crusade and the Jewish community was all but wiped out upon the Nazi occupation, Wrona clearly feels guilty about how his country failed its Jewish community.

This would appear to be an odd way to offer such an apology but the tone is surprisingly passive and sympathetic, yet still dark and unsettling. That Hana has returned to finish what she started before her disappearance only after Piotr exhumed her bones is purely metaphorical – you can bury something as deep as you like but one day it will be dug up again and become someone else’s problem.

How Wrona subverts the possession angle is simple, but genius – a female spirit inhabits the body of a male. In other films this has been done for comic effect but not here although the problem is in the pay off, or lack thereof. Why Hana didn’t follow the usual route of possessing Zaneta thus achieving her goal isn’t explained other than this being a film that isn’t concerned with convention.

In fact, there is a lot that isn’t explained or afforded a satisfying conclusion, made all the more frustrating by Hana/Piotr suddenly disappearing late in the second act and not seen again. Some films work without a definitive resolution or an ambiguous ending but for this writer, Demon isn’t one of them. The wedding gets a pithy punchline however, with the frazzled guests staggering home the next morning passing a funeral procession.

One thing that is worthwhile is the stellar performance from Itay Tiran, an extraordinary display of physical and emotional adroitness in charting Piotr’s transition from regular groom to a nervy, febrile wreck and finally a longing, lost female. The manic dance like convulsion of the possession pushes Tuiran’s physical prowess to levels of impossible malleability, only marginally more compelling than the nuanced feminine affectations and mannerisms he adopts as “Hana”.

Wrona’s direction is a curious blend of drawing out the best performances for the darker moments yet keen on creating atmosphere for the weddings scenes. Unfortunately, while they work in isolation, in tandem within the same film there is a tonal shift that leaves this feeling uneven and undermines the gravity of the main themes.

Loose and unfulfilled plot threads, a disjointed narrative, and an aimless storyline that meanders towards an ambiguous open ending are the key issues that make Demon a disappointment. The constituent elements are interesting and handled well enough but for some reason they didn’t come together for my tastes or indeed understanding.

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