Creepily ambiguous 'Demon' delves into the nature of Polish collective guilt

Itay Tiran stars as a groom who begins seeing strange sights on his wedding day. The film co-stars Agnieszka Zulewska and Andrzej Grabowski.

Courtesy of The Orchard
’Demon’ stars Itay Tiran (c.) as Piotr, a groom who encounters what seems to be a mournful spirit.

The horrifically comic “Demon,” directed by the late Marcin Wrona, starts slowly and ominously and gradually accelerates into a frenzy. It’s about an impending marriage that turns into a raving scarefest.

Wrona adapted the story, along with his co-screenwriter Pawel Maslona, from a 2008 play by Piotr Rowicki, but the film is anything but stagy. It begins when Piotr (Itay Tiran), who has been working in England, arrives in a rural village on an island off the coast of Poland. He is to marry his Jewish fiancée, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), and with her take over her dilapidated old family homestead. Inspecting the property on his own, on the eve of the two-day wedding, Piotr makes a startling discovery: human remains buried where the new swimming pool is to be built. 

Instead of alerting anybody, he keeps his discovery a secret. But it’s not long before a ghost in a wedding dress begins to flit in and out of his sight. Since the wedding revelries are fueled by vast oceans of vodka, it’s not clear for a while if Piotr is simply hallucinating. But as the party heats up, so does he. He starts twisting and writhing so violently that people think he is having an epileptic fit.

But what the movie – in a modern take on the dybbuk legend of Jewish folklore – means to convey is that he is being possessed by the mournful spirit of a young woman who disappeared from the village years before. As his ravings become ever more difficult to ignore, and with his new wife in a fright of her own, Piotr is relegated by his father-in-law, Zgmunt (Andrzej Grabowski), to a basement room where his deliriums only increase. A priest is summoned and an attempted exorcism begins after Piotr utters, in Yiddish, the words, “He is my lover – the man I was promised.” 

What lifts “Demon” out of the straight horror genre is that Wrona is after larger game here than mere chills (though he certainly achieves those as well). As is often true of many of the best films from Poland, the ostensible story camouflages larger, more metaphorical meanings. In this, it resembles the otherwise very different “Ida,” which also delved into the nature of Polish collective guilt.

The ghost in “Demon” has an accusatory force that is perhaps intended to link her with the vanished Polish Jews of the Holocaust. The drunken, haunted wedding ceremonies could stand as a black comic allegory of how totalitarian societies, faced with so much suffering, indulge in massive, murderous denial. Zgmunt, who for a long time refuses to believe Piotr is possessed, is more concerned with the fate of his wedding guests than with his son-in-law or daughter. He plies the party with more vodka, hoping, with much success, that they will remember the whole sordid affair as a kind of ribald fantasia.

On a less exalted level, “Demon” could be taken as a worst-case scenario for wedding planners. Everything that can go wrong, goes wrong; the typical fears of bride and groom are brutally realized. We are put in the uncomfortably anticipatory position of wanting to see the worst that can happen.

Wrona’s movie bears some affinities to the work of that great black comic absurdist, Luis Buñuel, especially his “The Exterminating Angel,” in which a dressy dinner party refuses to end and the guests deteriorate into decrepitude and starvation. But Wrona (who died last year at the age of 42) doesn’t have Buñuel’s wry coolness. He’s a much more manic artist, which is why Piotr’s unraveling, and Tiran’s performance, are so forceful: Actor and director are on the same jagged wavelength.

Wrona keeps everything creepily ambiguous right up to the end, when the foggy dawn breaks and what we have witnessed becomes like a dream within a dream. As Zgmunt tells the assemblage, “We must forget what we didn’t see here.” Grade: A- (Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.)

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