Horror is a genre well-suited to social commentary, and Demon is one of the most distinctive and insightful horror films to come along in quite some time. More importantly, the film operates from a position of solid storytelling. Like The Witch, which thoroughly impressed me earlier this year, Demon derives its terror not from gore or jump-scares but from character and atmosphere. And, like the best horror films, Demon is not without a strong sociological subtext but expresses its views with subtlety and style. It’s an extraordinary example of what the genre can accomplish, and is decidedly not to be missed.
A joint Polish-Israeli production, Demon plays like a traditional possession story set at a wedding. But the result is far from what American audiences might expect of such a deceptively simple premise. The groom is not possessed by a demon but by a ghostly presence from Jewish folklore known as a dybbuk, an unrestful spirit who clings to a mortal soul in order to resolve some unfinished business. And that’s where the metaphors begin.
This is a film about confronting uncomfortable truths and society’s unwillingness to accept the horrific sins of the past. When London-raised Polish native Piotr returns to the homeland to marry his fiancee, the girl’s wealthy father expresses immediate distrust and disdain for his future son-in-law but gifts the young couple with the family’s ancestral farmhouse anyway. As the young bridegroom begins to renovate the property, he uncovers human remains in an unmarked grave, unleashing the dybbuk. As the malevolent spirit takes hold of him during the wedding reception (in an exceptionally acted devolution courtesy of Israeli star Itay Tiran), the real horror is depicted in how the other characters react. The guests are willfully oblivious as long as the vodka keeps flowing. The bride’s father shows a callous disregard for Piotr’s well-being, while her brother quickly turns his back on his friend in the interest of saving face. As the details of the possession become clear, the skeletons in the closet (or the garden in this case) and everyone’s willingness to overlook them become an incredibly incisive statement on the lingering effects of the Holocaust and World War II on Polish psychology.
Demon is the final film of director Marcin Wrona, a rising star in the Polish film scene before his life was cut tragically short by suicide following the film’s premier at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Wrona’s direction is masterfully unsettling and bleakly comic, evoking a sense of dread from subtle camera movements and exemplary composition. An opening shot on a ferry subtly disorients the viewer, creating sympathy with the protagonist’s uncertain mindset through purely cinematic means, and a climactic sequence in which the drunken wedding party crosses paths with a somber funerary procession evokes a much darker Fellini. The international film community has lost an undeniably singular voice with the untimely passing of Wrona, who would almost certainly have produced future masterworks had he survived. As far as cinematic swan songs go, it’s hard to think of a more powerful legacy one could leave behind than Demon.
Cinematic storytelling is a delicate art, establishing character and narrative through strictly visual means, and this is where Demon truly excels. As is far too seldom the case, this film respects the audience’s intelligence, refraining from spelling out every plot point while still weaving a cohesive tale. A subtle twist of an ending that functions perfectly with the tone and intent of the narrative underscores Wrona’s prescient message that a society unwilling to accept its history is condemned to repeat it — but the point is made in the complete absence of any blunt soliloquizing. Demon is very nearly a perfect horror film and would have easily been my Pick of the Week were it not for the political urgency of Starving the Beast. It was a very tough call. This is a deeply disturbing and profoundly meaningful film that should appeal to a broader audience than just the genre completists. Though it’s too early to tell, Demon may well be the best horror movie of the year and will certainly find a place among the year’s best in any genre. Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse