2015, R, 94 min. Directed by Marcin Wrona. Starring Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Zulewska, Tomasz Schuchardt, Andrzej Grabowski, Katarzyna Herman, Cezary Kosinski, Adam Woronowicz, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Wlodzimierz Press.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 30, 2016
Polish import Demon is, hands down, not only an instant genre classic but also an astute and affecting rumination on the notion that the shades of the past are always with us and can disrupt us to the point of personal and societal collapse. The fact that the director, Marcin Wrona, committed suicide during a film festival at which this film was playing one year ago hangs over Demon like a pall, but thankfully that loss does nothing to impede the jittery, jangling, black ribbon of anxiety that permeates the chaos depicted in the story.
Weddings are nervous by nature but the nuptials of village outsider Piotr (Tiran) and bride Zaneta (Zulewska) are particularly fraught after the groom discovers a human skeleton buried beneath a tree on the grounds of Zaneta’s crumbling family manse. Piotr keeps the ill omen to himself, but as the guests arrive it rapidly becomes clear that something is very much off with the husband-to-be. Several times he catches sight of a spectral young woman, ominously dressed in bridal wear. When pressed by his father-in-law (Grabowski) as to the reason for his increasingly apparent agitation, Piotr leads the bristly patriarch, his new brother-in-law and old London wingman Jasny (Schuchardt), and the town doctor-cum-alcoholic (Woronowicz) to the muddy pit – it’s raining, of course it’s raining – only to find that the grave has mysteriously vanished. The family initially chalks it up to a bad case of nerves and vodka, the latter of which flows throughout the proceedings like an ever-addling river, but when Piotr comes completely unhinged during the festivities they’re forced to consider that the poor man is, indeed, possessed by a demon, and all that that implies.
Well, not really. Father is far more obsessed with saving face and avoiding the dread clutches of neighborly gossip (“Bring in all of the vodka!” is his rallying cry), the doctor is himself something of a reprobate (“I blame the Enlightenment!”), and the priest (Kosinski) is spooked and trying to hitch a ride back to town with anyone. Only Zaneta seems ready, willing, and able to stand by her man. It falls to the only Jew at the wedding, an Old World professor and survivor of the German occupation (Press), to decipher Piotr’s frantic ravings, which turn out be in Yiddish. The unblessed event slowly descends into a maelstrom of high-spirited bedlam, complete with grief, trauma, loss, and quite a lot of hideously apropos absurdist humor.
Expertly calibrated for maximum effect, director Wrona has crafted a ghost story that also serves as a disturbing reminder of the fragility of both marriage and societal bonds. This is that rarest of beasts, a perfectly cast film. As Piotr, Tiran turns in a fascinatingly nuanced performance, transforming from eager groom to a man possessed and from there to … who knows? It’s a bravura turn. Also notable is the terrific score by composers Marcin Macuk and Krzysztof Penderecki, which mirrors the mounting sense of delirious hysteria that unravels throughout the evening. The Polish/Israeli co-production picked up the Best Horror Feature award at Fantastic Fest 2015, and it’s a shame that Wrona is gone, but at least we have this superlative example of his cinematic brilliance.