It’s difficult to imagine that the most disturbing films would fail to catch up with their makers at some point. Indeed, these works of oppressively bleak terror eat away at the minds of those who dare dance with them long enough for something substantial to come of it, and some artists never return one hundred percent in-tact. One such case is Warcin Wrona, the up-and-coming Polish director who took his own life in a hotel room at the age of 42 following the premiere of his latest endeavor, DEMON, in September of 2015.
Why is it productive to take note of this tragedy? Well, for starters, its influence unquestionably hangs over the finished product at large; it is, after all, a tale of the supernatural taking place over a single unconventional wedding night, dealing directly with the consequences of digging up old ancestral bones (literally and figuratively), as if it were an exorcism for all of the filmmaker’s fellow countrymen. This may strike some as being a considerable stretch, but the film in question defies conventional categorization. Uninterested in being merely a work of exceptional social consciousness and empathy, or simply an above average genre picture, it’s an exhilarating roller coaster ride to say the least, and its most deep-seeded anxieties rest just beneath the surface.
The titular entity, to be even more specific, is identified as a dybbuk, born of Jewish lore. The wandering soul takes hold of the body of Piotr, a groom arranged to marry his sweetheart in their homeland after years spent working in the United Kingdom, over the course of their reception; which, to be fair, was far from the norm to begin with, what with the alcoholic doctors and morally ambiguous best friends who appear to be harboring nasty secrets.
The atmosphere of this particular party is one drenched in vodka, heredity, and hallucination. Dragged under the earth by something unseen on the evening prior to the big day, the groom-to-be returns the following morning not entirely sure of himself, but it’s not until the night rages on that he begins to exhibit odd, unexplainable symptoms (initially passed off as epilepsy and/or the results of having taken hard drugs, based on his erratic convulsions on the dancefloor). Itay Tiran, in a committed and intensely physical performance that should rightfully garner a great deal of attention, initially plays Piotr as the fool, but the grace in which the performance slips into feigned innocence and alienation is nothing short of impeccable.
Furthermore, the unlikely and unassuming hero’s descent into detachment is so exquisitely realized. Pawel Flis’ cinematography seeps through to the deepest recesses of the mind, and has the tendency to soar with genuine magnificence, especially in the earlier scenes at the reception, much like the work of another madcap Polish director (Andrzej Zulawski, responsible for such glorious spectacles as 1981’s POSSESSION and 1988’s ON THE SILVER GLOBE). The more desolate the dusty basement, the wetter the ground as a result of pouring rain, and the more thoroughly occupied the barn, the deeper the creeping phantasm’s presence is felt.
Wrona doesn’t appear to be terribly interested in delivering the all-or-nothing fright-fest that his overseas audience might anticipate; which is their loss, really. He exercises impressive restraint here, tempted less by the prospect of building up to individually striking moments than he is by conjuring some terrifyingly obscure force to pervade every frame of his meticulously constructed swan song. The subtly unnerving score, courtesy of Marcin Makuc and Krzysztof Penderecki, only improves the film’s lingering influence; overall, the tone at play here is an unusually ballsy one, but Wrona orchestrates it masterfully, breaking it down when he must and seamlessly channeling all varieties of strange energies.
It’s mostly pretty grim stuff, so much as to make the moments of dark humor all the more invasive upon first impressions. DEMON is something special, something more consistently disturbing than the standard possession pic, because it faces the darkest implications of the void with genuine ferocity. Those very implications seem to say a great deal about Poland’s complicated relationship with its fascist past, that which the elders would prefer to sweep under the rug, as they always have. Like the dybbuk to the bridegroom, guilt eats at them from the inside out, until it simply cannot be ignored.
There are few clear – read: easy – answers to a few of Wrona’s more decidedly universal questions, but in the ingeniously cold and collected home stretch of his final film, his point is made perfectly clear. The spirit may be gone, it may have vanished from sight, but in truth it will never leave this place or these people. It’s hardly the most optimistic outlook, but it’s an admirable one. After all, how often is it that a horror film truly hangs its audience out to dry in such elegant fashion? It’s not the mark of laziness, or unnecessary ambiguity; instead, it signifies the work of an artist who is utterly fearless, more than capable of backing his merciless nihilism with moments of quieter intimacy, and whose career was unfortunately cut short before it could flourish to the fullest. One can only hope that he would understand the magnitude of his creation, how utterly entrancing it is, and how it is almost single-handedly able to zap new life into a sub-genre that has been dried up for some time.