PLOT: During his own homespun wedding ceremony, a bridegroom named Piotr (Itay Tiran) is slowly subsumed by a female demon whose skeleton he accidentally dug up in the front yard.
REVIEW: As a handful of short films paved the way for a pair of promising features - MY FLESH MY BLOOD in 2009 and THE CHRISTENING in 2010 - it's almost unfathomable if not bittersweet to report that Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona will not be able to enjoy the delectable fruits of his ultimate labor, DEMON - the devilishly deviant take on the age old Dibbyuk folktale that The Orchard is releasing in limited theaters this Friday, September 9th. That's because Wrona took his own life in a hotel room during a film festival DEMON was competing in, almost exactly one year ago today. He was 42 years old. Far too young to expire, no doubt, but as the movie pleasantly proves, not too young to explore and aptly appropriate an ancient spook-story with such a personally stamped and lighthearted touch. Shot with a steady and sure-handed formalistic lens, played with credible pathos by all involved, belled with a quizzically unnerving score - despite the humor hampering the horror at times - DEMON is a bold and balefully bedeviling Polish delight!
Among the countryside in Poland, Piotr (Tiran) is poised to marry his radiant bride Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). Despite courting and living in London, the two have decided to hold the ceremony at, and subsequently reside in, her parents' moldering old Polish abode...the kind that hasn't a neighbor in sight. The sleepy, backwoods atmosphere and all its underlying portents are instantly felt. When Piotr arrives, he finds a conspicuous looking fellow named Ronaldo (Tomasz Zietek) digging up the front yard with a large tractor-claw. Shaking it off, the groom runs into his boozy soon-to-be brother-in-law Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt), and the two begin readying for the Vodka-fueled festivities. Just one thing. During the night, as if beckoned by an unspeakable force, Piotr goes out into the rain and begins exhuming in the same area he saw Ronaldo do earlier. And what does he uncover? The so called skeletal remains of a human body. More vexing, Piotr suddenly awakes inside his own car without the foggiest inclination of how he got there or what happened during the night.
When the wedding commences the next morn, the groom starts acting erratically. Marital jitters are drolly taken to a whole new level when it becomes increasingly clear that the subsumption of Piotr's soul is underway - that he's literally imbibed a potent spirit of the nonalcoholic variety - and a demonic undertaking he can't rightly resist has begun. And it's not just amusing, it's downright upsetting. This is a physically tolling turn from lead actor Tiran - febrile, spastic, twitchy - as he convulses back and forth with the convincing, arrhythmic tics of ever-increasing possession. Tiran shines here, and is almost entirely responsible for the performative horror the movie boasts. Honestly, without sweatily fiendish, feverish metamorphosis - at times speaking in tongues with a feminine lilt, daintily altering his body language accordingly - there wouldn't much outside of an ominous atmospheric setting for horror fans to really cling to. Tiran wholly embodies the corrupted soul and spirit of the titular ghoul whose spell he's fallen under, and it's precisely this manic performance that becomes the primary source of unsettlement.
One of the brilliantly conceived and genuinely effective aspects of the story was to set the action during, of all things, a wedding ceremony. As a joyous, celebratory, life-affirming festival - a wedding is the perfect place for patrons to get loose, let their guard down and eschew every trivial care in the world. So, when the horrific hammer does finally strike down, it not only comes as a jolting surprise, but it serves as an inherently jarring counterpoint to the good-willed nature of the gala itself. Also, as mere metaphor, the marrying of two souls through non-consensual possession is quite a clever one, and plumbed here - though ad nauseam at times - for all the humor its worth. Actually, and this may sound a bit odd, as we always tend to grouse about the lack of humor in a horror film being the death knell of monotony, but I think the episodic sitcom humor about the Father of the Bride (Andrzej Grabowski) doing his damndest to keep the wedding afloat, even in the midst of inexplicable chaos, tends to wear the horror aspects a bit thin toward the end of the film.
However, just because the scares are sapped a bit by the sense of humor, I'd argue the movie is better suited this way as a more well-rounded overall experience. It might be marginally more terrifying without the laughs, but it could just as easily be deathly monotonous as a result. As it is, mirth gives way to madness in DEMON in a manner that keeps you, maybe not scared throughout, but definitely off guard for most of the runtime. More sturdily propped however is the photography by Wrona's main DP, Pawel Flis. There's a measured precision to the cinematography and shot selection - static camerawork, long takes, natural bulb-lighting, etc. - that really gives the movie a distinct ambience that reinforces the ominous nature of the story. The look and feel of the movie is as integral to its success as any other aspect of the production, which also includes a jaggedly resonant film score by composers Marcin Macuk and Krzysztof Penderecki. For an independent, Polish/Israeli production shot on location for under what must have been a paltry budget, all of the various morsels of DEMON congeal to tally not just a lasting legacy of a swan song for posthumous director Marcin Wrona, but a solid horror import that deserves support from fans across the globe. Truly, this is one DEMON expertly summoned!