The late Polish director Marcin Wrona, who tragically took his own life just days before the theatrical premiere of his third and final film, Demon, created one of the bleakest and most sardonic horror films of the year. Second to the South Korean shamanism shocker The Wailing, this tale of a Polish wedding gone berserk when the groom appears to be succumbing to possession by a Jewish demon known as a dybbuk is at once an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of dislocated spiritual forces as well as a jet black comedy about denial. Less about the evil spirit that may be linked to a skeleton found outside the to be newlywed’s home than the cumulative impact the dilemma has on the wedding guests and the bride, this chilly and draining nightmare stands out in an oversaturated market of devil movies flooding the multiplexes this October. While the epicenter concerns a jolly good young fellow growing increasingly erratic with numerous rational explanations offered including the possibility of alcoholism, epilepsy or rushing into a marriage, the possession is merely a catalyst to the real horrors involving the in-laws and father of the bride. Instead of trying to solve the demonic affliction transforming the groom into a mere shadow of his former self, dad and the in-laws work tirelessly to save face all the while burying their heads in the sand, the logic being all will be well as long as the guests are continually fed copious amounts of booze. In scene after scene, the characters and poor spectators watching this movie will gradually lose their minds as the chaos, intoxication and madness intensifies without relent.
Less of an old fashioned ghost story than an allegory for the all-consuming toxicity of denial, this is one of the rare horror movies where the behaviors of the onlookers are infinitely more troubling than the human being possessed by a vengeful evil spirit. Much like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s despairing Russian drama Leviathan, the rural Polish countryside has never looked or felt more like a desolate wasteland with its unfortunate denizens doing all they can to maintain smiles. Touching on painful post WWII wounds and drawing heavily from S. Anski’s Russian verse play The Dybbuk, Demon is fraught with angst dripping from every frame of the film’s bleak visual schema. With a beige and sickly greenish look lensed by Pawel Ellis with frequent wide shots contrasted by intimate close ups of the groom’s face whose eyes grow more sinister as the film progresses, this could well be the most deathly looking rendition of a foreign country since Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film. The soundtrack itself, partially composed by Marcin Macuk while largely dominated by Poland’s greatest avant-garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki, is a moody and ambient buildup of dissonant strings leading towards a shriek. Having recently reviewed Penderecki’s opera The Devils of Loudon, the still active composer quite simply is the very definition of modern horror soundtracks. Listen to one of his compositions with the volume turned up loud with all the lights off and you’ll be hard pressed not to succumb to cutis anserina. Special thanks of course go to the leading couple, played by Itay Tiran and Angnieszka Zulewska, who convey a seemingly happy pair of lovebirds who by the end of the film are streaked with blood, sweat and tears covering their terrified faces. Equally commanding and most frightening of all is the father of the bride played by veteran actor and comedian Andrzej Grabowski who willfully denies to himself and everyone around him the inexplicable horrors unfolding before his very eyes. The worse the situation grows, the more and more he convinces himself there’s nothing wrong.
By the time Demon was finished, I felt drained dry. It’s hard to believe there could be a bleaker, more hopeless film released in theaters this year than the Hungarian holocaust drama Son of Saul, yet here we are. Though spiced with mordant humor throughout, almost sniggering at the descent into booze addled debauchery and chaos, Demon is ultimately an anguished, veiny scream of despair picking the scabs of still healing wounds from a violent history from which Poland has yet to recover. Like the old saying goes, to forget the past is to relive it and in Demon the past rears its ugly head to destroy the present. Like the loose Polish kid cousin The Wedding, Wrona’s dark and foreboding parable might be the closest the depiction of marriage, what is supposed to be a happy and life affirming celebration of two lovers coming together, has come to looking very like a flesh and blood Hiernymous Bosch painting. Everyone who watches it can speak to having been to a bad wedding or two where drama or bad feelings fly while the elders do their best to keep a lid on the occasion, but few can say they’ve ever witnessed one this insane and nightmarish. In light of the director’s tragic and unexpected suicide, Demon is clearly borne out of the dark and deep depths of a tormented man’s soul trying to make sense of a world gone mad with the denial of the evil pulsating in it. This is not by any means an easy watch. Contrary to the devil horror funhouse scares of James Wan’s The Conjuring or Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity and much the typical Blumhouse Productions fare, Demon is as haunted, terribly sad and uncompromisingly hopeless of a demonic possession horror film as you can possibly imagine. Like the wedding guests unlucky enough to witness the groom’s implosion and woeful crumbling of the happy occasion firsthand, you won’t know what hit you.
- Andrew Kotwicki