DEMON Review: Depression As Possession

A filmmaker's tragic death highlights deep themes in a great horror movie.

The coroner report says that Marcin Wrona’s sudden death as his film, Demon, was premiering in Poland was likely suicide. I don’t include this grim fact in my review for salacious purposes but because Wrona’s tragic end unlocks the themes at the center of Demon, a truly great horror film that is now shown to be a staggering examination of mental illness and depression.

In Demon Itay Tiran is Piotr, known to his friends as Pyton, a British born Pole. He has fallen in love with Zaneta, Agnieszka Zulewska, a Polish girl from Poland, and he has come to the homeland to marry her on a small farm in the countryside. As Piotr prepares the farm for the festivities he uncovers human remains, and on the night of the wedding he finds himself tormented by a spirit that has invaded his body, turning the reception into a slow motion train wreck of embarrassment and horor.

Demon has multiple thematic layers; the bones that Piotr discovers date to Poland’s dark mid-20th century history, and his struggle with the forces they unleash represent modern Poland’s wrestling with their Nazi-occupied days. But broader than that Demon is a movie about how depression and mental illness can strike at any time, even at the happiest moment of your life. Depression is the unquiet dead, buried in a shallow grave, ready to strike again when the thin layer of dirt separating it from your life is disturbed. Even as Piotr is truly ecstatic to be married to his love his mind becomes a battlefield over which he has no control, one that drives him to increasingly odd and self-destructive behaviors.

Even on your wedding day the demons come for you. Even on the day your film is premiering.

The thematics give Demon meat, make it a great film, but it’s the filmmaking that makes Demon a great movie to watch. It has the turning of the screw pace that, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, is punishment. Wrona knew how to keep the film moving while also allowing the movie the space and the time to simmer. Having most of the film set at the wedding reception helps; it becomes some sort of possession-based remake of Margot at the Wedding, a movie that posits the in-laws as more or less as scary as the spirit at the center of the story. Wrona milks real human moments - both moments of humor and tension - from the wedding reception and its rituals of dances and speeches. Throwing a possession into the center of it only heightens the emotional drama that already exists.

Tiran is extraordinary as Piotr, whose genial bro-ishness in the early film is a brilliant set-up for where the possession eventually takes him. Tiran gives the role his all, throwing himself physically into every moment of writhing, squirming, sweating and twitching possession. More than that, Tiran is dedicated on every emotional level, and in his final scenes he delivers lines that could elicit laughs but that, thanks to his absolute commitment, are heartbreaking and harrowing.

Demon is a horror film that could have its central supernatural conceit removed and remain largely intact, but it’s that central supernatural conceit that gives the film so much thematic heft. This isn’t a standard possession movie, and it’s not a standard haunting movie. It’s the rare film that has a lot on its mind thematically but that is also able to deliver the goods on a dramatic and emotional level. The loss of Marcin Wrona was a tragic one not just for his friends and family but also for cinema.

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