The Demon of History

Polish film revives the Dybbuk legend as a coda to the Holocaust.

A newly arrived man and his fiancée. A somber rural village in shades of gray. A dark, neglected house in the country. Outside, a hole in the ground with human bones inside. Strange nighttime sounds of a woman crying. A wedding interrupted by hallucinations. An old man who remembers things everyone else wants to forget.

With those ingredients and its title, Demon gives every indication of being a routine horror movie. You know, the kind of flick where shock cuts happen in predictable rhythm, cued by lurching synth spook music, and the special effects credits run longer than the climactic scene. But Demon is something different. It’s a Polish international production, shot on location in a village southeast of Warsaw and directed by Marcin Wrona, a TV veteran with a few contemporary lifestyle dramas in his filmography. The differences don’t end there.

The newly arrived man is Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran), who moved from London to the middle of Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), the lively blond daughter of a stone quarry owner. Piotr and Zaneta’s wedding is set to be the event of the year, but there is something down in that pit that refuses to lie still — something from the country’s shameful past. Poland is home to a great many holes full of skulls and bones. As a character explains it: “The whole country’s built on corpses.”

The supernatural chills in Demon are a contemporary revival of the Polish-Jewish legend of the Dybbuk, a restless spirit who possesses the body of a living person. Director Wrona — who was found dead in a hotel room, an apparent suicide, just before the film’s premiere in 2015 — adapted the screenplay with writer Pawel Maslona from Piotr Rowicki’s play Adherence.

Demon is not perfect, either as a shocker or as a ringing indictment of the dismissiveness displayed by Zaneta’s father Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski), a vodka-swilling bully who would rather annul his daughter’s marriage and pretend the haunting never happened. We can plainly see that most of the villagers want to keep reminders of the Holocaust, and the Jewish culture it eradicated, buried and forgotten. That’s the curse on Piotr and Zaneta.

The mood is dreamlike, with sharp character performances and an apprehensive music score of woodwinds and scratched violin strings by Krzysztof Penderecki and Marcin Macuk. The old Jewish schoolteacher Szymon Wentz (Wlodzimierz Press) knows exactly what’s wrong when Piotr’s wedding dance veers off into ghostly convulsions. The past cannot and will not remain covered up. Demon is worth seeing, if only to re-emphasize that.

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