Demon (14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival) Review
Poland is not the first country you'd associate with horror films. In fact you could suggest that the two Poles most associated with the genre, Roman Polański and Andrzej Żuławski, made their major horror works outside the country. (That said, Żuławski's The Devil, made in 1972 and promptly banned by the authorities, is showing in this year's Kinoteka Festival as part of its Żuławski retrospective.) Now, in a country which makes around forty films a year, it's still a genre not many Polish filmmakers are drawn to. But here we have Demon, the third and sadly final cinema feature film of Marcin Wrona, forty-two at the time of its release.
Piotr (Itay Tiran), nicknamed "Python", returns from London to marry Żaneta (Agnieszka Żulewska). Her father (Andrzej Grabowski) has given them the family's country house as a wedding gift – though wondering if Piotr's motives for marrying his daughter are more than a little mercenary. The country house is being renovated, and a digger has unearthed a human skeleton, which Piotr finds as he falls into some mud while walking through the ground. He covers it up without saying anything, which turns out not to be a good move. The wedding goes ahead as planned, but during the reception, strange things begin to happen. Piotr sees visions of a young woman. Then he has a seizure and starts speaking in a foreign language, which the one Jewish person at the reception identifies as Yiddish. It soon becomes clear that Piotr has just a dybbuk possessing him, the spirit of a dead person, who clings to the living because of unfinished business in his or her life. This spirit is of a young Jewish woman, Hana (Maria Dębska), who had lived locally but who had vanished decades earlier – it's not hard to guess how. Meanwhile Żaneta's father tries to persuade the wedding guests all is well, as they party into the evening.
A Polish/Israeli coproduction, Demon is commendably ambitious, making use of Jewish legends of the dybbuk, and also bringing in Poland's history with regards to the Holocaust. At one point, a wedding guest opines that Poland was once a united country and "bad ghosts" coming in have made it less so – a statement which, given the present ghost, could be read as anti-Semitic, though you're left to decide that for yourself. There's a clear Kubrick influence in Demon, with an overt nod to The Shining at the very end. Wrona's film also shares with Kubrick's the use of Krzysztof Penderecki's music (he's co-credited with Marcin Macuk for the score). The film juggles quite a few themes and possibly doesn't quite manage to handle them all quite as well as it should, and as a horror film it moves into a more abstract direction in its final scenes and as such it's more unsettling than scary.
However, there's quite a lot to be impressed by, and (as I haven't seen Wrona's two previous features, My Flesh My Blood (Moja krew) from 2009 and The Christening (Chrzest) from 2010), I'd be suggesting that Marcin Wrona is someone to look out for and anticipating what he might make next. But sadly, there won't be a follow-up: on 18 September 2015, Wrona took his own life.
Demon shows on 10 April at 6.30pm at the Regent Street Cinema, London, as part of the 14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, screening in partnership with the UK Jewish Film Festival. Further UK showings and distribution are to be confirmed.