Demon is a haunted film. It’s filled with promise, but its flaws loom over every scene like a somber ghost — the spirit of the film it could’ve been.
Sadly, director Marcin Wrona committed suicide before the film’s premiere at the Gdynia Film Festival in Poland, his homeland. His wife and producing partner, Olga Szymanska, is now taking the film overseas and carrying her husband’s memory. It’s a striking case of life imitating art, as the heroine of the film also stays committed to her husband during the worst of times.
The film follows a man named Piotr (Itay Tiran) as he travels to a small Polish village to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) and fix up the old house her father left for them. While doing some landscaping the night before the wedding, Piotr uncovers a skeleton. It turns out to be the body of a young Jewish girl who was killed by her Polish neighbors in the village during World War II. And like a “dybbuk” from Jewish mythology, this spirit possesses Piotr and clings tightly, threatening to stay until her death is avenged.
As she slowly takes over his body, Piotr acts quite odd during the wedding party. He sweats, stutters and breaks out into fits of anger. At first, his mood swings seem to simply be the result of alcohol, stress and the disorienting intoxication of entering a new family. But then he starts flailing around in horror film fashion, displaying demonic behavior that echoes The Exorcist.
The family doesn’t know what to make of Piotr’s changes, especially since they barely know him. They have no frame of reference for how he normally acts. For a while, it seems like his outlandish, alien appearance is meant to mirror how they see him — as a stranger, a foreign threat to the family.
The problem is that we don’t get to know Piotr either. Therefore, his violent transformation isn’t as tragic as it could be. He merely morphs from one mystery to another. Unlike The Exorcist, which deeply distresses us with the deterioration of its lead character’s innocence, Demon grows dull and tiresome. It loses sight of the humanity amid the horror elements.
Despite his character’s lack of depth, Tiran delivers a largely engaging performance. He’s a magnetic actor, drawing you in even when the drama enters thematically thin territory. In the first act of the film, he exudes an intriguing sense of sorrow. However, once the spirit consumes him at the wedding party, his performance is reduced to a mess of shaking and shrieking. As his wife, Zulewska isn’t much more interesting; she essentially becomes a puddle of tears.
Demon isn’t a bad film; it’s a disappointing one. It makes us squirm in our seats — not out of fear or boredom but out of hope for the film to go in better, more compelling directions. If only Wrona had the chance to evolve as a filmmaker. This film certainly shows that he had the potential.