Review: Marcin Wrona’s Chilling DEMON

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A chilling, romantic, surprisingly humorous take on demonic possession.

Admittedly, Marcin Wrona’s final project, DEMON, garnered all the more attention following the director/writer’s untimely death, yet it’s a film that deserves all that attention, and so much more, based on its own merits.

Despite the title, this Polish-Israeli co-production, written by Wrona and Pawel Maslona, and based on Piotr Rowicki’s play “Przylgni?cie” (“Clinging”), is far less concerned with terrifying its audience as it is serving up an entrancingly ambiguous, heartfelt and stalwart spin on possession platitudes. Wrona renounces the shuddersome special effects we’re all too accustomed to when it comes to demonic possession films, in favor of forging a much more atmospheric, speculative, and ultimately, far superior supernatural yarn.

A plethora of potent historical commentaries are also served up by using the unrested soul, in this case the Polish legend of the dybbuk, as a metaphor for the plight of the Polish-Jewry population during the Holocaust.

DEMON traces the steps of Piotr, played by seasoned thesp Itay Tiran, as he ferries his way over to a small Polish island village to pledge his troth to Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) where they plan to settle down on an old plot of land the particularly leery father-in-law (Andrzej Grabowski) has pledged as a wedding gift.

Being the feisty young chap that he is, Piotr’s eager to plod on with preparations for the new family home – that is until he happens upon some human remains whilst digging up the land. To avoid any cause for concern on the eve of his big day, he brushes a bit of soil back over his discovery only to find himself haunted that same night by a foreboding figure before he falls into a mud pit; and that’s the last we see of him until his brother-in-law, Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt), comes to pick him up with little time to spare to get to the altar.

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The wedding gets off to a fine start, with each guest getting even more inebriated than the next one thanks to the host family’s bounteous stash of vodka. But when a dishevelled and grubby Piotr is ushered onto the stage to give an impromptu speech, the nuptials take a turn for the worse as the ghostly bride from the night before crashes the party, possessing the groom and inducing in him a spasmodic dance floor breakdown before the eyes of the intoxicated guests.

At first everyone jumps to the obvious assumption that Piotr’s strange demeanour is just an unhealthy cocktail of epilepsy and spirits (not of the paranormal kind). When his situation worsens the father-in-law begins to assume Piotr may have some kind of psychosis that his daughter was unaware of, until he starts to speak in an unknown tongue that eventually proves to be Yiddish.

As Wrona’s designs were clearly to create cinema of a sans special effects kind, to keep everything grounded, and ergo, scarier and funnier, everything falls firmly on the cast’s acting chops:

Highly experienced with the Bard himself, Shakespeare, Tiran is an absolute joy to watch. The way he convulses out of control is a spectacle in itself, but where he really comes into his own is the fact that the dybbuk he plays host to is a lovesick and frightened little Jewish girl, Hana, rather than your typical malevolent spirit out for bloody vengeance. Tiran shows remarkable intuition when it comes to personifying this woman living inside him, not once laying it on too thick. You really can’t help believing that there really is a young girl hidden in there somewhere.

But by far the film’s strongest suit is its wickedly stygian comedy which elicits equal parts cringe-inducing and guilt-inducing laughter.

The lion’s share of the comedy comes in the form of exchanges between a “recovering” alcoholic doctor (Adam Woronowicz) and a priest (Cezary Kosinski) and their contrasting beliefs in the light of events. The natural candor and perfect comic timing make for some unexpected kooky fun.

More comedy gold is provided by Grabowski, the controlling father-in-law, but his persona serves to provide much more of a cutting commentary on the iniquitous petulance still present in today’s society. The absolute epitome of illiberality, the “poor” chap clutches at every last straw in a forlorn attempt to deal with the situation and save face in front of his esteemed wedding guests. His initial uncertainties are comprehensible when he welcomes Piotr, a virtual stranger, into his family’s ranks, but once possession sets in, his actions become more and more cretinous when it becomes more apparent all he is interested in is distancing his new son-in-law from the family equation. A further example of his “anti-everything” behaviour is when his very own son bears the brunt of the blame for not having run a more thorough check on Piotr as Grabowski has absolutely no desire to roll out the red carpet for anyone who poses a risk of tarnishing their thoroughbred bloodline with the likes of “epilepsy” or “xeno genetic mental ailments.” Like I say though, all the father-in-law’s irrational beliefs and actions are handled in cunning comedic fashion to stress just how self-centred and intolerant people can be when in the company of people not of their own “pedigree.”

Wrona’s most evident allusions to the Holocaust emerge in exchanges between a Jewish professor (Wlodzimier Press) and the dybbuk when Piotr starts to blurt things out in Yiddish. It turns out the professor and Hana were acquaintances in their oppressive past and the affection he clearly has for the poor girl hiding inside Piotr’s body serves the most profound lip service to those unsung agnostic heroes who benevolently opened their doors and helped their Jewish neighbors in war-torn Poland.

With Piotr possessed by such a timid and perturbed young woman, rather than your overly-trite deadite type, the story isn’t that scary in itself – not that it’s supposed to be – though the beliefs and actions of some of the above mentioned cretins are certainly disquieting. Nonetheless, a constant creep factor is instilled via Pawe? Flis’ bleak and chilling cinematography that conjures up a portentous sensation amidst the cheery wedding celebrations. This unease is enhanced tenfold by Marcin Macuk and Krzysztof Penderecki’s schizophrenic orchestrations that inject dread and anxiety into the most simplest of actions, all the while emulating the absolute chaos the protagonist is enduring.

As it reaches its culmination, DEMON ends on a particularly mysterious and obscure note but it works all the better for it, ensuring it remains lodged in your thoughts long afterwards.

If DEMON is any kind of harbinger as to the heights this director was capable of scaling, it’s blatantly clear just what an extraordinarily gifted soul we have lost. Wrona might no longer be with us but the silver lining is that his final adieu is destined to stand the test of time, not only as a superb slice of cinema, but even more so as a fitting tribute to his talent.