Overview: On the eve of his wedding, a man discovers a secret that once kept to himself possesses his mind and body. The Orchard; 2015; Rated R; 94 minutes.
Tragedy: Any viewing of Demon comes with extra weight when one considers the tragic suicide of its director, Marcin Wrona. The director himself called the atmosphere of the film “suicidal” and took his own life at a film festival where Demon screened. This fact adds to the already-chilling atmosphere of Swierze Górne, Poland, a small village awash in browns and greys and saturated in a heavy fog. Peter (Itay Tiran) arrives there from London, and he’s about to wed Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). It’s clear from the beginning of the film that while the family is happy about the nuptials, they’re also concerned that these lovebirds know nothing about each other, apparently having only had a few online conversations in English. But Peter and Zaneta don’t want to wait: they’re in love. And what a love it is: Peter shows his boyish side in silly games, wrestling, and a showy insistence on driving heavy machinery while restoring the old family farm. He eagerly practices Polish with the family and gleefully plans a swimming pool in the front yard with them until he unearths human remains that haunt him in more ways than one.
You Seem Different: There’s no dramatic possession moment in Demon. Instead, Peter quietly descends to the depths. The unpredictable and much-lamented weather reflects the storm going on inside of him and he seems aware that something is taking over his body. His transformation is obvious given the ominous physical changes Peter experiences, beginning with a bloody nose and eventually leading to what the drunkard doctor assumes is epilepsy. These early scenes are chilling, but as time goes on Tiran’s performance falls short–it draws laughter easier than gasps and misses the mark, though not for lack of an earnest effort. Zulewska’s performance is notably strong, transitioning flawlessly from joyful and elated, to evenly concerned, and finally devastated and numb. It is she who our eyes should really be on through the film as we watch her react to all that is outside of her control.
Demon employs a few tired tropes: a childhood friend who seems jilted that his best friend’s sister is marrying someone else, a closeted alcoholic doctor, and a fairly useless priest whose first instinct is to run instead of pray. For a possession film, none of the scares really hit, though some tension is evident thanks to the moody setting–the colours and weather add a palpable weight to the film. At its best, it’s a unique take on the Jewish legend of the Dybbuk, of which we saw an Arabic take in Under the Shadow this year. At times Demon drags a bit, much like the wedding which seems to last approximately three days. It’s also confusing genre-wise, at times playing like a satire poking fun at the institution of marriage and society in general. Even the father of the bride bellows a version of Aristotle’s, “Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god . . . ” these undercurrents are only soft whispers that easily fall on deaf ears of viewers who may not be paying attention.
Spitting Image: Over the three days that the wedding continues, we’re given glimpses of a funeral occurring at the same time–Peter’s first view of his new home includes a devastated woman screaming in the water, surrounded by ambulances and stunned onlookers. We never learn who she is or who she mourns but she stands as the contrasting backdrop to this twisted happy occasion. Wrona employs general tricks, like joyous moments overlaid with ominous music, but one scene of exhausted drunk wedding guests stumbling up a hill passing the parade of funeral goers was both gorgeous and moving.
Triple Threat: Demon considers itself a film of three genres: horror, thriller, and comedy. The comedic moments aren’t necessarily unwelcome, just strange–the drunken priest plonking out classical songs on a tinny electronic keyboard, guests devolving after absolutely drowning in vodka, and the singer negotiating a contract while screwing a bridesmaid are all scenes that drew nervous laughter from the crowd. Unfortunately, by the end every character seems to have lost some part of their minds and all laughter feels uncomfortable. A second viewing is almost required to adequately separate and enjoy each layer of Demon. Another viewing may also benefit the audience who has a difficult time piecing together the deep history that is referenced throughout the movie.
Overall: Demon is a confusing mix of genres and effectiveness that shouldn’t necessarily be sold short. It’s clear that Wrona had something to say in his film, but it takes effort to clearly make out what the intended message is. Though foggy, the film is quite lovely to look at with its soft pastoral farmland and unexpected warmth. It’s a shame Wrona won’t be around to show us what else he was capable of, as he seemed to have a natural eye.
Featured Image: The Orchard