Demon

(Marcin Wrona, 2016)

“He who will not partake in society is either a god or a beast...”

Attempting a toast at a Polish wedding, an old Jewish professor is booed when he intones Aristotle. When another speaker performs Chopin, a young guest – eager for vodka and dancing – shouts “Play something Polish!” With horror and barbed humor, Marcin Wrona's Demon takes aim at a population uninterested in remembering its own haunted history.

The bride and groom in question are Zaneta, a native Pole, and Piotr, from London, who recently fell in love. Too recently, says Zaneta's father, a quarry foreman who grudgingly approves of their union. Perhaps he's swayed by Piotr's brash confidence. This is a young man who casually vows to rebuild a bridge destroyed by the Germans during wartime, and he and Zaneta have grand plans for an old inherited property, a house and barn in the woods that have seen better days. When Piotr clears a stand of trees with a digger, he discovers buried human remains, which he hastily covers again. An unsettling encounter that evening leaves Piotr feeling unlike himself. His hands are perpetually dirty. He begins to doubt his own eyes.

Piotr stubbornly proceeds with the wedding – held in the barn he plans to raze – and his behavior grows publicly bizarre, yet Zaneta's family insist their bewildered guests continue to celebrate. The professor theorizes Piotr could be under the spell of a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit from Jewish mythology. Others insist Piotr is simply damaged goods, an unfit husband.

Clues to Demon's historical allegory come early and often. The shadow of WWII hangs heavy – the score is laced with Penderecki's unnerving Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, and Piotr could hardly be more of a foreign invader if he tried. At times, Demon's horror tropes feel overfamiliar. Nothing good ever comes from disturbing old burial plots, and the film's stinger is a direct homage to The Shining.

But whatever its setup lacks in subtlety, Demon unearths tension in surprising places. Much like Karyn Kusama's The Invitation, Demon is a slow-burner that finds considerable discomfort in the lengths to which social groups will go to maintain decorum. A lesser film might crescendo to some explosive Carrie-style reckoning, but Demon opts for abstraction over neat resolution.

While ostensibly a horror film – and it is effectively atmospheric, with some chilling moments – Demon is better described as a tragedy rooted in the supernatural. The tragedy is in witnessing an anguished past demand recognition, only to be rebuffed by a Skype-bred generation with no use for history. Demon may be a Polish film, but its timely warning should resonate just as strongly on these shores.