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ybbuks have had a pretty busy decade at the movies. The monsters of Jewish folklore have played starring roles in David S. Goyer’s 2009 film The Unborn and the Sam Raimi-produced 2012 film The Possession, in addition to playing a prominent role in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. If anything, it’s a surprise horror movies have waited so long to use them since they combine some of the most potent elements of demonic possession tales and revenge stories. In most dybbuk stories, the supernatural entities take over the body of their victims, sometimes out of spite, but more often because of some kind of unfinished business.
It’s the latter sort of story that inspired the play, The Dybbuk. Written by S. Anski sometime during World War I and first staged after his death in 1920, The Dybbuk concerns a woman whose dead lover possesses her the night before her wedding to a man of her father’s choosing. Film critic J. Hoberman called it “arguably the key Jewish artwork of the past century,” in part because of the flexibility of a story in which “the past asserts its hold on the present.”
That’s the element of the play seized on by Demon, a 2015 horror movie by Polish director Marcin Wrona in which it’s the groom, not the bride, who falls prey to a dybbuk just in time to turn his wedding into a disaster. Loosely adapted by Wrona and co-writer Pawel Maslona from the 2008 play Adherence, Demon opens in a gray, fog-drenched, suspiciously deserted Polish town that appears haunted even before the supernatural goings-on kick in. Through it rides Piotr (Itay Tiran), “Python” to his friends, and though he sits atop a backhoe, he’s on his way to his wedding.
Piotr comes from London, at least most immediately. He speaks some Polish, but it’s not clear if he was born in Poland or abroad. Whichever the case, he has plans to make Poland his home, specifically the old estate his wealthy father-in-law Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski) has given to Piotr’s bride-to-be, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). But the land has other plans. On the stormy night before the wedding, Piotr finds some bones in a pit and sees a woman in white shortly before sinking into mud that appears to swallow him whole. Yet, there he is the next day, waking up in his car ready to be married. But it’s not really Piotr. Not entirely.
From that set-up, Wrona builds a deeply unsettling possession story that plays out against the backdrop of Zaneta and Piotr’s wedding, which hits its first snag when Piotr develops a nosebleed just after the “I do”s. The problems only escalate from there. Piotr keeps having visions that make odd references to a woman named “Hana.” Soon he’s speaking in another language entirely, one a guest who describes himself as an “old Jew” recognizes as Yiddish. He remembers a Hana, too, a beautiful girl long disappeared who, in one form or another, seems determined to return.
Filmed in almost sickly pale hues, Wrona’s film uses a gathering that spans generations to explore how the present never fully succeeds in overwriting the past. There are always ghosts — or dybbuks, or, to use the film’s English title, demons — to serve as reminders of what’s come before, even as those in the present try to go about. Here the celebration spins on — the vodka flowing freely and the festive music playing loudly — as Piotr’s condition dredges up a past the older members of the family he’s joined don’t want to face, one that explains why one of the cottages on their property has the name “Hana” carved in the door to mark a girl’s growth and the town’s synagogue now stands empty.
It’s a film haunted both within and without. A profile in Haaretz reveals how much Wrona drew from his own background for the film. He was born in Tarnow in the southeast of Poland, a city whose population was once half-Jewish and where, as with much of Poland, only traces of its Jewish past now remains. His father performed exorcisms, which he witnessed. (Can any other director of films about possession make that claim?) Demon is the work of a director in full command of his talents, but his promising future ended not long after its first screenings. Shortly after premiering Demon, his third feature, at the Toronto International Film Festival, Wrona killed himself while attending a film festival in the city of Gdynia. He was 42.
Maybe it’s fitting, if grimly so, that Demon ends on such an irresolute note. Filled with jolts and upsetting imagery — some of it provided by Tiran’s ability to twist his body into extreme poses while under the dybbuk’s control — it’s very much a horror movie. But it’s a horror movie that withholds some of the expected payoffs of the genre. There’s no explosive acts of supernatural revenge to its story of lives cut short and obscured history, just a long, disturbing journey to morning. “We must forget what we didn’t see here,” Zgmunt tells those who’ve stayed up all night, celebrating, wondering what’s going on with the strange man Zaneta is wedding, drinking some more, then staring bleary-eyed as the sun rises on a new day and wondering what to do next. But some events refuse to be forgotten, and some ground refuses to keep what others bury inside it.
Keith Phipps writes about movies and other aspects of pop culture. You can find his work in such publications as The Ringer, Mel Magazine, Vulture, TV Guide, Decider, Polygon and The Verge. Keith also co-hosts the podcast The Next Picture Show and lives in Chicago with his wife and child. His all-time favorite horror film is Dawn of the Dead but he’s still baffled by the moment when the biker decides to use the blood pressure machine in the middle of the zombie attack. Follow him on Twitter at @kphipps3000.