DEMON (Marcin Wrona, 2015): Not So Spooky / by Samuel B. Prime

Note: This review has been amended from its original version to call attention to an oversight in the marketing and distribution of DEMON (and, consequently, the initial review). DEMON is being sold as a horror film with folkloric origins. It is not. However, it is a war story using folklore as a medium for its message. - Samuel B. Prime

Two Saturdays ago, I met a striking woman in an unconventional environment. We met by accident - or, maybe, happenstance - and spent the better part of the evening talking about movies. In the course of our discussion, she mentioned - and recommended - a 1937 Polish / Yiddish film entitled THE DYBBUK. "A dybbuk," she said, "is a kind of wandering, disconnected soul. With unfinished business. Not evil, exactly, but it might possess you." I was intrigued. I added the film to my watchlist and, upon arriving home later that evening, I realized that I had received an invite to a press screening of Marcin Wrona's DEMON (2015), a contemporary film about dybbuks. What were the odds? Recognizing the continuity, I looked forward to watching DEMON in the days to follow.

And then, to my great disappointment, I watched DEMON. What seemingly promised to be a thoroughly chilling tale of countryside possession (according to the press release) turned out to be little more than a tame stroll through an old, dark house. At least, so I thought. There is *something* watching from the shadows, of course, but the something is not particularly ghoulish or grotesque. It is more metaphorical, something tied to collective memory and an historic pain: the memory of the holocaust and the oft-secreted suffering endured throughout. Although 'the point' of Wrona's wraith is likely its mundane appearance, a person like you or me, much of the marketing for this film would have you believe the focus is its practically non-existent "eerie atmosphere" and "ghost story."  Those supernatural elements are a smokescreen for the subject at its center: cultural forgetting.

Somebody forgot to put the horror in this horror-comedy-romance amalgam. No, scratch that. Someone - the distributors - told me that this was a horror movie and they were wrong. I - foolishly - took their word for it and, when I didn't find what I was looking for, I gave up and started to clean my apartment instead of trusting that clarity was within. It wasn't until the very same woman whom I mentioned in the opening paragraph shared her perspective with me that the film was fully illuminated. After I had written my initial account (and published it here), she saw the film (notably, without the same marketing and promotional preface) and saw much more. I was in the dark. She brought me into the light. For that, I thank her. The film is deeper, more fractured than I had initially considered. I still find that its various attempts at both humor and romance fall flat, but the exhausting experience of what I previously saw as a self-serious treatment of a fantastic subject matter now makes a great deal more sense. Instead of reveling in the dybbuk's folkloric origin, DEMON shoots for a potent - if somewhat understated - metaphor by which to discuss holocaust denial. Maybe that subject doesn't exactly sell tickets.

DEMON opens in limited release - Los Angeles and New York - on September 9th, 2016.

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon