The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 Chicago Film Critics Festival.
History isn’t confined to books; it’s all around us. As Americans, that’s often hard to comprehend for a number of reasons, the loudest among them being that we’ve rarely seen the effects of a war-torn state. The ripples of 9/11 have certainly changed this country, and the spiraling hate of the Civil War is still being felt over a century later, but these examples pale in comparison to the atrocities and terror that, say, both World Wars delivered to Europe.
That feeling fuels the inescapable tension of Marcin Wrona’s unnerving horror drama, Demon. The late Polish filmmaker, who passed away at the age of 42 last September, dusts off the sordid history of Poland by inviting one of its restless spirits to the wild, drunken wedding between Piotr (a superb Itay Tiran) and his soon-to-be bride, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). Slowly, the titular presence claims the groom, tearing open the sins of the past and the ill will of the present.
Written by Wrona and Pawel Maslona, the story patiently laces the country’s historical implications into the proceedings. Piotr is an outsider from London, introduced to Zaneta by her scheming brother, Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt). Because of this, her Polish Jewish family is wary of the bloke, causing all kinds of cultural friction. Hell, when we first meet Piotr, he’s visiting Zaneta’s father (Andrzej Grabowski) at his construction site, where the young bachelor promises to design a bridge to connect the village to the mainland. He even attempts to speak in Polish, much to the others’ chagrin.
The family’s inherent xenophobia isn’t exactly unwarranted. A cursory study of Poland — specifically Kraków, where this film was shot — would reveal that the country was once the epicenter of Jewish culture and life — Orthodox, Chasidic, and Reform all flourishing together. When the country was invaded by Germany in 1939, the Nazis not only attempted to remove the Jewish population, but also any traces of their vibrant lifestyle and economy, from their street names to their storefronts.
All of this history informs Wrona and Maslona’s premise and adds an overwhelming purpose to the evil at hand. But this isn’t your average phantom; no, instead, the two writers tore a page from Jewish mythology and conjured up a dybbuk. This, as the film’s flamboyant doctor (Adam Woronowicz) and trembling priest (Cezary Kosinski) point out, is a dislocated soul that clings to the living. As the film unfolds, we learn the spirit is but one unfortunate parable of the country’s past sins.
Similar to Babak Anvari’s fantastic Under the Shadow, Demon is a smarter, more elegant brand of horror, one that wrestles with complicated, festering cultural conflicts that, in turn, advance the matters at hand. It’s also downright beautiful. Wrona opens each scene with wide, lumbering shots that are perfectly blocked, lensed to perfection by cinematographer Pawel Flis, and run through pins and needles by composers Marcin Macuk and Krzysztof Penderecki.
Such dizzying tranquility is occasionally punctured by subtle glimpses of altered reality, but really, most of the horror dwells in the surreal chaos and atmosphere that registers as achingly post-apocalyptic. It’s rare to see such an elaborate and vibrant setting in the genre, and a Polish wedding is quite a juxtaposition from the expected intimacy of a possession. By comparison, it would be like if Father Merrin showed up to perform the exorcist on Regan during her mother’s party for the astronaut.
It’s not all tricks and treats, though. Wrona and Maslona know how perverse the situation is on paper, and several of the characters are mildly self-aware enough to call that out. Woronowicz’s aforementioned role as the doctor comes to mind, as he spends a lot of time shaking his head in disbelief between sips of vodka. His uncertainty mirrors our own, but like anyone with one eye open, he eventually comes to believe what’s happening around him.
By the end, you’re left with the sobering realization that there is a dark possession to any history. That the past is the past only in theory, and it’s what we carry that will forever shape the present and the future. Sins can only sleep for so long before they re-emerge to haunt again when you’re least expecting them. Demon strikes an enviable balance between these ideas, and Wrona’s near-flawless execution serves up a terror that’s enlightening and paralyzing all the same.
His tragic loss is also our own.