Demon: a rare chance to see something new in ‘possession horror’

There’s a really cool little movie coming out in Philadelphia this week called Demon. It’s a possession-horror movie, so it’s doomed to be dismissed, likely ending its local theatrical run in about a week, yet it’s of a higher caliber than so much of the standard genre output for a multitude of reasons. Whether you’re a horror nerd or an art-house connoisseur Demon is very much worth your while.

Featured as part of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival earlier this year, Demon takes elements from your standard possession horror flick and applies them to a tale based in Jewish mysticism. Instead of a using a classically depicted minion of Hell and waging a battle against the Christian notion of Satan, Demon instead features a mythological entity known as a dybbuk.

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For those unfamiliar, a dybbuk is the dislocated soul of a deceased person which attaches itself to the living, using a host body as a vessel to ameliorate any of the decedent’s unfinished business. Basically, what makes a dybbuk different from a Captain Howdy, is that a dybbuk has a mission; Captain Howdy is just a jerk.

The film takes place mostly over the course of a single day – the lead character’s wedding day. This results in an urgency that adds humor to the horror. While the possessed and those savvy to the possession are working to purge the dybbuk from the bridegroom, the rest of the extended family is desperately trying to keep the wedding from falling apart. Dybbuk or no, tradition must be maintained! The proceedings are equally tragic and madcap. As the dybbuk begins to make headway on its “mission” we root for the mystery to be solved … but we really don’t want this young couple to have their big day ruined, nor do we want anyone to be hurt in the process.

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Visually, director Marcin Wrona, with cinematographer Pawel Flis, capture the agricultural brown hues of the landscape while simultaneously giving the wedding a quaint-but-corruptible feeling of familial calamity that, even sans a dybbuk attack, is volatile. As happy as weddings usually are, almost all feature an unspoken tension amongst certain guests, and as the situation gets more dire – and the guests grow drunker – the color palette grows drearier, and the lens draws into focus the imperfections of the setting. There’s a little bit of pretend – of fantasy – in every wedding ceremony, and it’s fascinating to watch it slowly strip away. There’s a touch of Polanski here, which is a rare and welcome treat.

Here’s the kicker: prior to the film’s screening at the Gdynia Film Festival, Poland’s premiere film exhibition, director Marcin Wrona hanged himself in his hotel room. Nobody saw it coming and nobody knows why he did it. The relatively young director was recently wed, and had a growing reputation as a quality filmmaker. Even though there’s really no reason to connect this tragedy to the film, I feel I must mention it. Not only will it serve to put butts in seats (yeah, I’ll shamelessly sensationalize if it gets you to drop some money on this gem), but it also adds to the viewing experience. I cannot estimate if there are intentional parallels between the life of the filmmaker and that of the lead character (short of newlywed status and ensuing tragedy), but the knowledge of his untimely death adds layers to the narrative that I found to be of immense value.

In summation, I urge you to take a chance on this clever little movie while the opportunity exists. Demon uses mainstream cinematic devices to sneak a heady, atypical art-house horror flick past your defenses. You won’t be sitting up at night in fear, but you will be ruminating on it for a while. You’ll also probably search ‘dybbuk’ on Wikipedia and then fall down a wiki-hole for a few hours like I just did. 


Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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