Horror has in recent years been so informed by found footage, smartphones and Skype that a trend toward folklore was probably inevitable. Far from trying to capture the moment, arthouse movies like The Babadook, It Follows and now Demon aspire to a kind of timelessness — what was old has become new again. In Marcin Wrona’s film, the mythic entity being awakened is a dybbuk, a spirit of Jewish lore that takes over the body of its host and doesn’t let go.
Demon, while not straight horror, has one foot in the genre (the other, of course, is in the grave). It opens on an enigmatic river-crossing sequence, the body that gets dragged from the water serving as a harbinger of what Wrona has in store. His tale concerns a groom-to-be who, while digging outside his and his fiancée’s new fixer-upper of a home, uncovers skeletal remains — and keeps the secret to himself. This is mythically verboten, it would seem, as by the time Piotr (Itay Tiran) lets anyone in on his discovery the damage is already done: His body is now home to Hana, a Jew whose mysterious death during the height of World War II has entered the realm of local legend.
At first the effects of this possession are subtle enough to disregard as coincidence: a nosebleed during the couple’s celebratory wedding dance, strange questions asked of a holy man in attendance. There’s no pea soup or 360-degree neck rotations, just a growing sense of unease. But then the young woman appears to Piotr as he addresses his guests onstage, her skin pale and hair dark, disarmingly beautiful like Snow White risen from her glass coffin. Soon he’ll start speaking Yiddish as his body writhes in a futile attempt to reject its new host.
We have a sense of what became of Hana because, when the voice emanating from Piotr’s mouth claims to be speaking her words, a village elder seems sure that only one girl in the area ever carried that name. According to the old-timer, she “vanished without a trace.” It’s entirely possible for a person to disappear for non-sinister reasons, but not in this town, not during the War — you can bury secrets in the ground, but time will eventually bring them back to the surface.
The tragedy here isn’t confined to the screen: Wrona took his own life a week after the film, his third, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. As a swan song, Demon isn’t exactly a comfort; attempts to glean what its fiction might hint about Wrona’s emotional state (and vice versa) are probably inevitable, but the film is haunting enough on its own.
With casket-black humor and an eye toward the inescapable ugliness of history, Wrona invokes the ghosts of Poland past. What he uncovers is sad and angry, a voice from beyond the veil crying out to be heard and acknowledged. If that sounds overt, it never feels that way — Demon establishes its mythos with glancing blows rather than hitting us over the head with it all at once. The cumulative effect is like a late-round knockout, the kind you’ll feel in the morning even if you walk away under your own power.