Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/16/16 01:25:27

"Find out what a family's got buried before the wedding."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There are some sluggish moments in Marcin Wrona's art-house horror movie "Demon", enough that it's maybe not going to be what some genre fans are looking for from a movie with a title that makes a fairly simple promise. Even with this being the case, though, it's an impressive little piece of work that covers the entire breadth of what the genre is capable of without a lot of fuss: It's both genuinely creepy and darkly funny, and sneakily builds up to being something of substance as well.

It starts with the buildup to a wedding: Piotr (Itay Tiran) is a handsome engineer that Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) met in London, coming to her hometown in Poland to marry. It's an isolated spot that one reaches by ferry, but Piotr and Zaneta plan to renovate the guest house on her parents' property. Someone seems to be jumping the gun, though, and Piotr finds a skull buried on the property. The discovery leaves him changed, though, and Zaneta's father Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski) struggling as the whole town has arrived for a wedding that is quickly becoming a disaster.

There's something delightfully ominous about the way Wrona starts the film, with a backhoe passing behind houses like a monster in the fog, riding the line between whimsical and sinister. It's a clever bit of table-setting - digging something buried up is what sets things off supernaturally and metaphorically, and even as events become more nightmarish, there's often something funny going on, and a bulldozer seeming to sneak around the neighborhood does set the right sort of tone. Though in many ways Demon is a tight movie, almost always favoring the human perspective over one that is flagrantly supernatural, Wrona and cinematographer Pawel Flis will use shots like the one with the bulldozer (or the ferry or a gathering storm) to hint that there are forces much powerful than humanity loose in the world.

Even taking that into account, the film's heartbeat is the ensemble playing off each other, pushing and pulling in a way that keeps its blood circulating until it's time to run. Itay Tiran and Agnieszka Zulewska are the vascular artery as Piotr and Zaneta, supplying a simple but effective attraction and romance that gives the rest a chance; that these two love each other is enough to keep the rest going ahead when others might have pause. Take, for instance, how Tomasz Schuchardt and Andrzej Grabowski interact with Piotr as Zaneta's brother and father, respectively - without much actual explanation, the audience gets the sense that the family and town need what this successful outsider can bring to it, but also don't entirely like the idea of him have Zaneta yet. One tries to ingratiate himself, the other goes for passive intimidation, and there's a very believable three-way push-pull between them. The wedding is peppered with guests who may or may not be of consequence, but often spice up a scene, with Adam Woronowicz (as a doctor who really wants no part of this condition that is clearly not entirely medical) and Wlodzimierz Press (as a teacher who may not be a rabbi but is most likely to understand what's up with a demon out of Jewish mythology) especially valuable as the film goes on.

Those different voices often pull the film in different directions, and while the thin plot means that Wrona is occasionally killing time, the way he moves the film between a number of different tones is really impressive. The extended centerpiece is the wedding, where the filmmakers do an exceptional job of showing events as genuinely frightening from one perspective - Tiran especially does a great job of converting what's going on with body language augmented by what seems like apocalyptic weather in the background - while playing up farce from the guests' point of view. There's some crossing over, and as all that is going on, Wrona and co-writer Pawel Maslona are able to drop what turns out to be crucial information into the picture much later than usually seems fair - and not only does it seem natural, but it adds a weighty theme to the film, one that allows the last minutes to pack much more of a punch than the audience simply being pleased or angry at what happened based upon their attachments to the characters.

That makes for an uncommonly intelligent horror movie, even if it does sacrifice some potential tension in the early going to build its foundation. You can do a lot of great things with horror, but seldom does a movie which tries to do all of them actually succeed as well as this one does.

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