Wednesday, March 23, 2016

ND/NF ’16: Demon

In S. Ansky’s archetype-establishing stage play The Dybbuk, it is the bride who is possessed by the titular spirit on her wedding night. This time, it will happen to the groom. That is what happens when you ignore the past in the late Marcin Wrona’s Demon (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

His name was Peter, or “Python” to his old drinking buddies, but the Englishman now goes by Piotr. He is ready to become more Polish than a Pole for the sake of his fiancée, Zaneta. Her father has his reservations, but he will not stand in the way of their union. In fact, he is giving them the old family country home as a wedding present. It is there that the ceremony and reception will take place—and what a party it will be.

While impulsively excavating his proposed swimming pool, Peter-Piotr unearths an ancient skeleton. Not wanting to put a damper on the next day’s festivities, he reburies the remains, which will lead to some massively bad karma. Python is clearly a little jumpy before the ceremony, but everyone assumes it is just nerves. For a while his increasingly erratic behavior is blamed on the free-flowing vodka. When he breaks out in fits, the father of the bride assures everyone it must be epilepsy. However, when the clearly unwell groom starts speaking in Yiddish, the old-timers know something profoundly bad is afoot.

One of the cool things about Demon is its cultural specificity. It would be impossible to remake this film in an American setting without losing most of its meaning. Centuries of Polish history went into its making. However, it is absolutely never dry or didactic. In fact, Wrona managed to incorporate some wickedly caustic humor, while maintaining an atmosphere of ominous dread.

Sadly, the eerie vibe is further echoed by Wrona’s tragic fate. Despite Demon’s enthusiastic reception at Toronto, Wrona apparently took his own life days after the premiere. It is a terrible loss in many ways, including for movie lovers who will not have the chance to see further films from the filmmaker. Indeed, this is the sort of film that could only be hand-crafted by a massively talented artist. It is wonderfully bold and ambitious, yet is also succeeds smashingly on pure genre terms.

Fortunately, as Python, Israeli actor Itay Tiran brought the passion and commitment Wrona needed. It starts out as a rather grounded and street smart performance, but blossoms into a spectacle of convulsive madness. It is completely nuts, but in a good way, almost reaching the level of Isabelle Adjani in Possession. Agnieszka Zulewska is terrific counter-balance as the level-headed Zaneta. Adam Woronowicz, Wlodzimierz Press, and Cezary Kosinski also add salty seasoning as the doctor, teacher, and priest who are not nearly as helpful as they ought to be.

Wrona’s unfortunate end will probably add an additional layer of intrigue for some horror fans, but Demon needs no curse to be compelling. It ends like no horror film has ever ended, but goodness gracious, does it ever pack a punch. As a result, Demon is easily one of the most distinctive and unsettling genre films you will see all year. It is also a regrettable reminder how serious and potentially lethal depression can be. Judge not, just try not to ignore warning signs in your friends and associates. Very highly recommended, Demon screens this Saturday (3/26) at the Walter Reade and Sunday (3/27) at MoMA, as part of ND/NF 2016.