In February, the outcome of 2016’s “best art house horror film” contest looked like a foregone conclusion. “What movie could possibly outclass the colonial homestead terror of Robert Eggers’ The Witch?” we asked. No one answered at first, but as summer crept along the movies replied, first with Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation in April, and then with Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing in June. Come October, Iranian-born director Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow will join in the conversation, and now, nestled snugly within seasons, we have late Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona’s Demon, his parting salvo before he took his own life last September.
Wrona’s story has a sad ending made heartbreaking by virtue of its ambiguity. The same can be said of Demon. In a word, the film is masterful, though it’s as likely to leave you disconsolate as to leave you mystified. Demon refuses to play by the rules of the “demonic possession” film, a la The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and 2012’s The Possession, the last horror movie of note to gravitate toward to the dybbuk of Jewish legend. But as he skirts convention, Wrona quite willingly treads along the same sandbox as his contemporaries: He takes an elliptical approach to his material, favoring uncertainty over clarity and mental disquiet over explosive terror. Demon won’t shake you in your seat for 90 minutes. Like the entity driving its plot, it’ll stick to your soul for days after the credits roll.
Demon’s action unfolds around the wedding of Piotr (Itay Tiran in an incredible leading performance) and Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), young, beautiful and madly in love despite a short relationship capped by an even shorter engagement. The brevity of their union concerns her dad (Andrzej Grabowski), but he does his best to warm up to Piotr despite his reservations. He gifts the couple with family property, an old farmhouse, too, though here “gift” is perhaps a term used loosely. Piotr flies to Poland from England to wed Zaneta, settle down and gussy up the house and the land it rests upon, and so their troubles begin: with a skeleton Piotr uncovers while mucking around with an excavator.
Did Piotr’s parents never teach him the old nursery rhyme? “If you dig up someone’s bones/Oh shit, that can’t possibly be a good omen, just get the fuck outta there pronto.” Seems not. Piotr neither disturbs the remains nor is himself disturbed by them, at least not at first: He has a wedding to attend, vodka to drink, and a gorgeous spouse to sneak off with for naughty times in between the ceremony and the reception. Even a nosebleed can’t put him off. As the shindig progresses, though, Piotr starts acting very unlike himself, and through his eyes we observe an escalating coterie of unsettling weirdness that’s best left for viewers to discover for themselves.
Horror snobs may feel inclined to evict Demon from the genre for its absence of scares. Wrona doesn’t hide in cabinets and jump out at us while screaming “boo” and flailing his arms. He includes no unearned jump beats, nothing to startle us the way that horror cinema has taught us to anticipate throughout its annals. What he pulls off instead is a good deal trickier, thanks in large part to expectation and custom. Demon gets under the skin, distorting perception while corrupting bliss at the same time, and even with a plate that full the film finds room for pitch black humor and a slice of nationalism. Toward the narrative’s climax, one guest, totally blotto, rants aloud about the good old days, when everyone was Polish and no one freaked out when strangers talked to ghosts.
Wrona focuses mostly on Piotr’s disintegration and Zaneta’s desperate efforts at figuring out just what in Hell is happening to her husband, but his camera often tracks away from their plight to fix upon her father, her brother, Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt), and her mother, Zofia (Katarzyna Herman), as they each allocate blame—to each other, to themselves, to theories and bullshit that sound even wackier than the idea of possession. (At one point, “food poisoning” is offered as an explanation for Piotr’s behavior, which naturally goes over just dandy with the guests.) Beneath the hemming and hawing there is a very real anxiety about how well you can know someone you met only months ago. Could Piotr have a congenital illness passed down by his ancestors? Why didn’t Zaneta marry a Polish boy? Why did Jasny have to set her up with Piotr in the first place?
Their recriminations don’t assuage their fears. Neither does their officiating priest (Cezary Kosinski), who entertains the suggestion of an exorcism only reluctantly. It’s the alcoholic family doctor (Adam Woronowicz) who advocates for that, and who through slurred speech recites a variation on a catch-all Jewish prayer for shooing away malicious spirits. “Be split, be accursed, broken and banned,” he says as the priest quakes. None of Demon’s pieces fit. By design, it is a pastiche of incongruities. It’s endlessly oblique, too. Interpreting its events presents a pleasing challenge, though for some Wrona’s passing may paint the film as a suicide note by proxy. This, of course, is a generous notion at best, even if it’s hard not to wonder what exactly he meant to communicate to his audience through his characters’ myriad expressions of guilt.
But Demon is more than Wrona’s farewell letter to the world, however personal or not. It’s enigmatic and meticulously crafted, an homage to a bygone Poland trampled by the specters of other countries, and a dirge for a family divided by superstition and grief. We should be so lucky to get one film like it in a single year, much less from a single lifetime.
Director: Marcin Wrona
Writers: Marcin Wrona, Pawel Maslona
Starring: Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Zulewska, Andrzej Grabowski, Tomasz Schuchardt, Adam Woronowicz, Wlodzimierz Press, Tomasz Zietek
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.