We went into this Polish horror movie Demon completely blind, except knowing that it was a Polish movie, that it was a horror with some comedy elements (apparently), but if you check it out now, you’ll see that it has quite a few ratings, garnering a whopping 94% approval from critics but a measly 55% from audiences. The Boy and I both liked it, but there’s a good chance you won’t, especially if you, like most horror going movie audiences (even the Polish ones), are expecting a traditional shock/horror type flick.
This is not that film.
It was bound to be the sort of film that garnered more critical praise than audience, because it has no starts, no scares, no shocks, and it’s more a sort of “the banality of evil” type dark satire. At the same time, the critics may be overrating it because the director Marcin Wrona, killed himself while shopping it around the festival circuit. It’s not always clear what the motivations are in a suicide, of course, and the dark nature of the film may have had something to do with it. Also, as we learned with Aftermath (Poklosie), the Poles have a pretty conflicted take on their treatment of the Jews in WWII.
The story is that of a young man, Piotr (Itay Tiran, The Debt, which was remade as The Debt) who moves to Poland to marry his girlfriend, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) and so goes out to look at their ancestral manse where the two plan to live after the wedding. This being Poland, and not England, it’s not a mansion or villa, but rather a farm with a barn and a poorly tended field and the like. Piotr wants to fix the place up, including putting in a swimming pool, and in the process of digging, turns up a skeleton. Things go south from there. In fact, it looks a lot like the ground swallows him up.
Next day he’s woken up in his bed by his future brother-in-law so they can all get ready for the wedding. The skeleton is nowhere to be found. And a lot of denials about any such thing even being possible (“it was a dog”) are proffered by the most-likely-candidates-to-know-something-fishy-went-down-in-the-past (the bride’s father, grandfather, etc.). Before you know it, though, Piotr’s acting odd. Like, talking about some other woman at his wedding speech odd. Bleeding for no reason. Having what looks like seizures.
The bride’s family is as socially conscious as they can be. The father-of-the-bride is none to sure about this English fellow marrying his daughter, as he only has the word of his flaky son (well, and her word, of course, but, y’know: chicks), and his inconvenient seizures at the wedding are downright embarrassing, to say nothing of talking like a teenage girl who’s been dead for decades. An old village Jew offers the sage advice that Piotr’s been possessed by a dybbuk—a notion the party atheist/communist takes more seriously than the priest, who can’t get out of there fast enough.
Now, at some point—perhaps it was the first indication that the priest wanted more than anything to get out of that wedding—I began to realize that we had ourselves an allegory. The priest and the postmodern atheist doctor who no longer drinks (but is constantly caught hitting the bottle) engage in debates while chaos is going on all around them, and the party guests keep drinking and drinking. (Reminded me a bit of The Tin Drum, actually.) When it’s all over, the father of the bride stands in front of the hung-over and dazed crowd saying “None of this ever happened. It was all a dream.”
Typically, people don’t go to horror movies looking for dark political commentary on the Holocaust. So you can totally get why people would not give this the boffo reviews. And between the subtext and the dramatic backstory, you can see why critics would rate it highly. Overall, though, it is a good movie—just know going in what you’re getting, and make sure you’re in the mood for it, and you’ll have yourself an interesting time.
It’s ironic, if true, that the director killed himself (in part) because he didn’t win a particular award from a Polish group. The whole point of the movie is how the Poles have yet to confront this issue. They tell us that Poklosie was banned in Poland. That he could take a movie like this on the circuit would seem to be progress of a sort.