Studio: The Orchard
Director: Marcin Wrona
Writer: Pawel Maslona, Marcin Wrona
Producer: Marcin Wrona, Olga Szymanska
Stars: Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Zulewska, Andrzej Grabowski, Tomasz Schuchardt, Adam Woronowicz, Wlodzimierz Press, Tomasz Zietek, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Cezary Kosinski
A wedding reception turns terrifying when the groom becomes possessed by a dybbuk mysteriously connected to the bride’s family.
Piotr hasn’t been engaged to Zaneta for long, though that hasn’t hindered Zaneta’s father Zygmunt and brother Jasny from being outwardly eager to welcome him into the fold. With the wedding just days away, Piotr endears himself to the in-laws by putting his engineering expertise to good use, excavating dirt on the family’s quaint country property for 21st-century renovations.
Piotr’s project unexpectedly unearths a strange skeleton in what appears to be a hidden backyard bone pit. Discovering the skeleton is only the first of several odd occurrences haunting the husband to be; occurrences that culminate with the vision of a ghostly woman glimpsed briefly before Piotr is suddenly swallowed by the mud-filled grave.
By morning, Piotr emerges seemingly unscathed from his eerie experience and the wedding takes place without incident. The reception afterward on the other hand, is a different story.
The free flow of vodka and celebratory revelry is interrupted when Piotr undergoes a startling metamorphosis in the middle of the dance floor. Guests gasp at the ghastly sight as, initially unbeknownst to them, Piotr is overtaken by a demonic dybbuk. Zygmunt and Jasny seem somewhat unsurprised, exchanging furtive whispers concerning an ancestral connection to a hushed local secret. Piotr’s possession may not be a coincidence after all, as the dybbuk is poised to transform the dynamic of Zaneta’s family as fully and as frighteningly as it transforms Piotr.
Late filmmaker Marcin Wrona’s Polish possession drama “Demon” draws inspiration from Piotr Rowicki’s 2008 play “Clinging,” and its theater origins are openly apparent. By that I mean that while “Demon” is very much classically cinematic in presentation, it is heavier on character-driven, thematic stagecraft than on linear fright film conventions.
The difference between “slow burn” and simply slow in a horror film is that the former is a technique intended to unsettle atmosphere gradually as opposed to having problems with pacing from lack of onscreen action. Wrona follows this patiently lit wick formula to lay the foundation for a seep under the skin ambiance of macabre moodiness mixed with an unusual Old World feel from the Eastern European backdrop.
“Demon” takes shape as a contemplative chiller, almost disturbingly quiet in how it keeps its core contained to one man while tendrils of terror tick toward everyone in his orbit. Possessed Piotr is not an overwhelming supernatural force of physical destruction, nor does his transformation inspire a hysterical outbreak or panicking pandemic. Horror is inherent in how those nearby are indirectly poisoned by the dybbuk’s presence, a subtle supernatural darkness altering ancillary character behavior through almost imperceptible contact.
Fabulous production design on the barn used for the wedding reception, where the film is primarily placed, and a large cast of extras anchor everything with one foot in imagined dreaminess and another in relatable reality. Plain-faced people in an authentic location make the proceedings feel like a true family wedding, not unrelated actors assembled on a soundstage. Granting these glimpses into a seldom-portrayed culture makes montages of traditional festivities and drunken dances fascinating where they would be anything but fresh in a more familiar setting.
This atypical tone gives “Demon” its hypnotic horror quality. A stylistically strong, mesmerizing mystery motivates most of the opening hour until the tangible narrative runs out of steam at the last act change. “Demon” builds up to Piotr’s possession through abstract tinges of terror, then loses itself in a creative course correction by becoming fully immersed inside interpretive ambiguity.
For the finale, Piotr is removed entirely when he disappears completely after the dybbuk is identified. “Demon” goes from slow burn to slow as it eases off the throttle by spending time with wedding guests sitting around the reception hall while entranced stragglers wander nearby fields in search of the vanished groom. Its last minutes mired in metaphoric meaning, “Demon” concludes cryptically on an ending as uncertain as it is unsatisfying.
Had Marcin Wrona maintained momentum even in instances when artistry consumes fiction, “Demon” would be more affecting, more effective, more infectious. The movie brims with memorable moments and nightmarish nuance nonetheless, though its late inning struggle to remain cohesive and coherent comes at the cost of undercutting its overall impression.
Review Score: 70