A bridegroom is possessed by an unquiet spirit in the midst of his own wedding celebration, in this clever take on the Jewish legend of the dybbuk.
Demon is a Polish import – full of mood, an oppressive atmosphere of dread and strong performances. It’s not a flashy film, although it is impressively produced. Not a lot happens – and its success depends a great deal on your personal stamina for a very slow burn. But the film is far from boring.
Python/Piotr (Itay Tiran) has moved from England to the Polish countryside to marry his love; Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). His Polish is getting better, and he’s already got an ally in his new family – brother-in-law Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt) – who introduced him to Zaneta. Upon arrival at one of the family’s aging rural properties – where the wedding and reception will be held – Python has a strange encounter with an apparent spirit. Flash forward to the next day – the wedding – and despite the festivities and revelry, Python is not himself. He’s been possessed by something from the night before and his soon-to-be family may have some clues as to who or what it is.
I really enjoyed all of the performances, but I have to call out Itay Tiran as the film’s lead. He’s a sexy young guy, with kind of a dark “bad boy” vibe about him. As Python becomes more and more confused and the supernatural strangeness takes over, Tiran must tailor his performance to keep up with these disturbing changes. But nothing will amaze you more than his final scene in the film as Python reveals who it is that inhabits his body. His slight physicality, softer voice and complete departure from his masculinity, will have you nodding in amazed appreciation. Through the rest of the film, his physicality is excellent – when he first has what everyone believes to be an epileptic seizure and later, when the entity possessing him seemingly takes over his body on the reception’s dance floor.
As Python’s bride-to-be and then bride Zaneta, Agnieszka Zulewska is strikingly beautiful, and her character’s loyalty to Python – even in the face of her family’s tendency toward rejection, suspicion and possible wrong-doing, she sticks by him. The scenes in the house’s creaky old basement are not only a showcase for Tiran (as mentioned above), but for Zulewska as well. Zaneta’s emotions are on edge (everyone’s drunk anyway), and she’s in a constant state of tearful confusion. We don’t know much about these people, but Zaneta’s love for Python clearly knows no bounds. This relationship is illustrated almost completely by the chemistry and performances of these two leads – with very minimal exposition or history. A triumph indeed.
The supporting actors are all fantastic. It’s such a large ensemble cast, it’d be tough to point out all of the greatness – so we’ll just have to focus on a few of the stand-outs. As Zaneta’s father, Andrzej Grabowski provides a formidable person to judge the man who has taken his daughter’s hand in marriage. He’s clearly hiding something, and the several scenes he has with Python alone – consistently put you on edge. With a cane at his side, he “walks softly and carries a big stick”. He’s not trustworthy, but with his outward jolliness, you are torn as an audience member.
Also worth mentioning, the old Jewish professor played by Wlodzimierz Press. The character’s obviously a bit senile and long-winded (as evidenced by his speech at the reception), but his expertise and experience is brought into play when he speaks to the demon inhabiting Python. His trip down memory lane as he realizes that he knows the spirit inside of Peter, is heartfelt and creepy. But nothing is more amazing than when he softly sings a song and; apparently knowing the tune – Python joins in. It’s really a beautiful and unsettling scene.
And again, there is no flash or spectacle to Demon. It’s not your typical possession film where black, sunken eyes are the norm, and creepy voices from hell emerge from the possessed’s mouth. It’s about genuine reactions to the goings-on and the performances which are being reacted to.
The locations for the film are grand and beautiful and uniquely plain all at once – making them feel mysterious and timeless. It’s almost the middle of nowhere and although the film takes place in the present, that patented “old world” charm so prevalent in Europe – is served up in heaps in Demon – like so many wedding reception eats.
The camerawork and shot composition (I’m thinking of one of the final scenes at the quarry) are spectacular.
But the big swatch of brilliance in Demon, is placing the majority of the story in one day – the wedding day/night. This film must contain one of the longest marital celebrations in cinema history. By the morning, after so much has happened, the few overnight stragglers wake from wherever they passed out – to hear one more speech from Python’s father-in-law. It’s a totally chilling and hypnotic scene – and answers many questions, while raising many more. These always present questions of “is it this?” and “is it that?” will continue to intrigue you long after the film’s completion. Even now, I’m still formulating little theories and possible conspiracies.
There’s a sort of call out to The Shining in the film’s final moments as the main building on the property is torn down – and it lends a few additional clues as to what has just happened.
The opening sequence of Python making his way across a rushing river on a ferry – is echoed as the film’s ending credits roll. We never get an absolutely clear final confirmation/explanation of who this ghost is, or why she haunts the farmhouse. Sure, we can make our own educated guess, and we know that the family is up to no good – but why and to what end? We’ll never know.
The film is certainly a horror/thriller, but it does have a sense of humor – in the form of gags sprinkled throughout – namely the priest’s many attempts to get a ride home. The second arrival of an ambulance to the reception had me chuckling out loud.
Demon is currently playing the festival circuit. So when it becomes available on DVD/VOD, I implore you to seek it out. It’s an intelligent, thought-provoking film and full to the top with terrific performances. There’s little spectacle, certainly for a possession flick – but the film works on so many other levels, you’ll find yourself involved and intrigued nonetheless.