In 'Demon,' A Spirit Proves The Ultimate Wedding Crasher

Sep 8, 2016

After his daughter's wedding has become a shambles, Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski) addresses the assembled guests. He instructs them that "we must forget what we didn't see here." He's not just talking about what went wrong at the nuptials: the chilling and yet very funny Demon is set in Poland, where there's much to forget and not see.

We view the country at first through the eyes of Piotr (Itay Tiran), a modern-day equivalent of Jonathan Harker, Dracula's emissary from London. Piotr is also from London, although he speaks Polish as well as English, which suggests he has roots in this haunted place.

He takes a small ferry across a winding river and asks why there's no bridge. The answer, eventually delivered, is also the correct reply to many other questions: the Germans.

Piotr is traveling to a small town to marry the high-spirited Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), but first he must meet her father. Zygmunt runs a quarry in a land where a great many things have yet to be excavated.

Zygmunt is skeptical of the engagement. Piotr was introduced to Zaneta virtually, through her brother, Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt), another Londoner. Piotr and Zaneta fell in love via Skype, and Zygmunt thinks they should spend more time together in person before they marry.

Yet the wedding proceeds, despite Piotr's apprehension about something he found on the grounds of Zaneta's grandfather's house, where the new couple plans to live. The large, dilapidated manse seems like the kind of place that might have skeletons in its closets, but Piotr finds human remains outside — while operating a bulldozer borrowed, of course, from his future father-in-law.

At the reception, in a barn beside the house, Piotr begins to behave strangely. It could be all the vodka, although Zygmunt is quick to diagnose the unwanted groom as epileptic. The town's ineffectual Catholic priest, eager to escape the debacle, reluctantly attempts an exorcism.

A local philosophy professor (Wlodzimierz Press) who describes himself as "an old Jew" offers an alternate theory: a ghost who possesses living hosts. One such spirit is the subject of 1937's The Dybbuk, the most famous surviving example of Polish Yiddish cinema.

Demon has been described as a horror movie, and it also has elements of a murder mystery. Yet director Marcin Wrona, freely adapting Piotr Rowicki's play, doesn't provide the sensory assaults of mainstream scare fare. In fact, he parodies them with several shockers that turn out to be unshocking. In one, a mysterious hand emerges from under a bed, but is quickly revealed as nothing ominous at all.

As for the possible murder of a young woman named Hana, decades ago, it's never definitively solved. Her fate is overshadowed by that of millions, evoked in a scene where the professor points out the spots where the town's Jews used to eat, shop, and worship.

Carnage is in the air. Much of the soundtrack music is from the canon of Krzysztof Penderecki, a composer known in the West for "Polymorphia" (used in The Exorcist) and "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima." When some older Polish music enters, it's to set up another joke: A wedding guest begins to perform Chopin, and a man yells, "Play something Polish!"

The mix of horror — exemplified by Pawel Flis' wind-swept widescreen images — and humor lasts almost until the modestly hopeful ending. It's comedy, as much as the eerie atmosphere and Tiran's very physical performance, that distinguishes Demon from routine ghost stories. But laughter was not enough to sustain Marcin Wrona. The 42-year-old director, who himself must have been haunted, committed suicide just before the film's premiere.

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