demon_1Year: 2016
Director(s): Marcin Wrona
Writer(s): Pawel Maslona, Marcin Wrona
Region of Origin: Poland

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: Unrated
Color, 94 mins

Synopsis: A bridegroom is possessed by an unquiet spirit in the midst of his own wedding celebration, in this clever take on the Jewish legend of the dybbuk. (Source)

Demon is centered around a supernatural possession, but in a surprising twist, its scares comes from a much more relatable sickness – that of indifference and self-imposed ignorance. For his final film, late director Marcin Wrona delivers a story we’ve seen countless times before but from a wholly new perspective, blending Jewish folklore with urgent social commentary. Trading empty jump scares and gore for deep-seated paranoia and an exploration of social prejudice, Wrona’s found true terror, the kind that gets deep beneath our skin and is virtually impossible to shake. It’s a piercing psychological experience that leaves us totally shaken, with Wrona playing the long game and getting us to confront harsh, human truths as opposed to delivering fleeting, meaningless jolts. Together with haunting performances from stars Itay Tiran and Agnieszka Zulewska, Wrona subverts expectation at every turn, thanks to some stylish direction and a potent message too important to ignore.

Piotr (Itay Tiran) has just arrived in Poland from England. In the next day he’s to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), a young woman whom he hasn’t known for long, but has fallen madly in love with. He’s been accepted with open arms by Zaneta’s brother, Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt), but a family friend and her father are a bit more wary of the whirlwind romance. The wedding’s also set to take place on the grounds of an old family home, one that Piotr’s set to inherit after the ceremony. While settling in on the eve of his big day, he discovers a pile of human bones in a makeshift grave. Unsettled but not thinking much of it, he covers up the remains and prepares for the wedding. Soon after, strange things begin to happen – Piotr has recurring visions of a young woman, he hears voices around the house, and on the day of the ceremony, he quickly starts to lose his grip on reality. As he exhibits strange behavioral shifts, those around him are confused and terrified, but oddly reluctant to rush toward his aid.

Using a focused setting to build tension through familial friction, Wrona’s film thrives through social implications rather than cheap, visual gimmickry. The wedding, with all of its heightened emotions proves to be a rich battleground for paranoia and repressed prejudice, with an unexpected evil taking shape under the guise of fearful groupthink and a defiant desire to ignore what’s really happening. In this way, it’s the story’s sharp subtext about mental illness that sets it far above its peers, illustrating how at most times we’d rather demonize those afflicted rather than act with compassion. As the film spirals into tragedy, Wrona takes a unique stance on the Jewish dybbuk, finding sympathy with his tortured spirit and host, and leading us to become infuriated as the people who are in a position to do good insidiously plot to distance themselves from the equation. In addition, Wrona’s taut sense of style is worth the viewing alone, featuring centered close-ups and visual poetry which draw us in and deny respite, never allowing a frame to go wasted while adding texture through atmosphere. Fittingly, there isn’t a neat bow on the complex issues at the heart of Wrona’s film, but instead a wrenching look at the mundane, pervasive apathy that is rampant on a daily basis.

demon_4Itay Tiran and Agnieszka Zulewska give the film even more depth with their fierce performances. As Piotr, Tiran is the film’s center. He makes Itay feel like an ideal everyman, a genuinely good guy who is ready to give his life to Zaneta. As things get complicated, Tiran performs Piotr’s transformation with restraint, despite the grueling and grotesque changes happening to him. In a stroke of brilliance, most of what his character goes through is internal, with Tiran allowing us to see two personalities raging within the same body, just from subtle changes in body language and demeanor. Zulewska has a smaller role, but she takes over in the film’s second half, with Zaneta taking charge to bring the Piotr she loves back to the fore. Zulewska makes sure that her character breaks through, lending the film its emotional stakes with a character who is essentially powerless toward the supernatural threat, yet refuses to stand by and do nothing.

Demon is a compelling argument that humanity and all of its self-fabricated fears are still scarier than any malevolent spirit. It’s a refreshing work of horror that acts as a mirror to our darkest selves while also satisfying as a sobering genre experience with a devastating finale. Most of what you’d expect from this kind of chiller never happens, and the film is better for it. While most horror films are single serving, easily forgotten, Wrona’s final work sticks with us, shining through delicacy and a keen understanding of human wants, regrets and frailty.