Fantasia Fest Review: DEMON

Jewish folklore meets a Polish wedding, and the result is harrowing.

A dybbuk is a presence from Jewish folklore, a malevolent spirit possessing the body of a human and presenting itself as the dislocated soul of someone long dead. It’s an entity examined in films like 1937’s The Dybbuk and, less successfully, in 2012’s The Possession, but it’s never been more powerfully, perturbingly introduced than in the late Marcin Wrona’s film Demon.

Itay Tiran is Piotr, who has cheerfully uprooted his life in England to live in the Polish countryside with his bride-to-be Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). Piotr and Zaneta’s romance has existed largely online – they met through Zaneta’s brother and Piotr’s best friend Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt) and have since carried on their courtship through Skype - but in the moments of their joyous first hug, it’s clear that there is great love here. Zaneta’s parents have offered the family home to Zaneta and Piotr as their wedding gift, a beautiful if somewhat neglected estate, and construction begins the day before Piotr and Zaneta’s wedding. As Peter spies a pile of bones in the recently upheaved earth, it’s soon clear that a dreadful presence has been unearthed along with it.

At first, before the dybbuk makes itself irreversibly known to the members of the wedding, it seems as if Piotr is simply someone who cannot allow himself happiness. A Polish wedding is an epic affair – hours and hours of dancing and drinking, more partying than Piotr seems accustomed to enjoying – and Zaneta is radiant and overjoyed, an enormous smile transforming her face every time we see her on the dance floor with her friends and family. Piotr, already something of an outsider to this enormous, overwhelming family, sits on the outskirts, watching silently. He wouldn’t fit in here, even if he weren’t possessed by a wrathful spirit.

The union is beset by omens: Piotr loses his wedding ring, he gets a bloody nose. Rain is supposed to be good luck for weddings, but this is a downpour, angry and relentless. As the wedding grows in scale and energy, becoming something of a monster of its own, there seems to be a battle here between the new world and the old. Young people dance and mock the vague old Teacher (Wlodzimierz Press) or somewhat ridiculous Doctor (Adam Woronowicz), and Zaneta’s parents fight to maintain control of the rapidly spiraling event. The vestiges of the past will not be quiet, no matter how little the young guests want to hear them.

Tiran gives a startling physical performance, mutating into something dark and terrifying in front of us, without the benefit of special effects, merely with his voice and face and movements. We see something of his stage acting here, a Shakespearean actor who creates a reality around him without need of any assistance in post-production. Demon is a rather straightforward production, one location and few effects, but it is a prodigious story, one that terrifies and resonates and remains.