Up until its unfortunate third-act detour from intriguing verisimilitude to frustrating abstraction, director Marcin Wrona’s “Demon” enthralls as an atmospheric ghost story with a cheeky undercurrent of absurdist humor. This modern-day take on the dybbuk legend of Jewish folklore, which Wrona and co-scripter Pawel Maslona adapted from the 2008 play “Adherence” by Piotr Rowicki, doubtless will haunt a few screens on the global fest circuit. But commercial prospects appear limited, since the film isn’t likely to satisfy either genre fans or arthouse habitues.
Itay Tiran gives an impressively vivid yet understated performance as Piotr, an affable young man who journeys from England to marry his beloved Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) at her family’s country home in rural Poland. While wandering around the property, which he and Zaneta will receive as a wedding present from her father, Zgmunt (Andrzej Grabowski), Piotr uncovers what appear to be human remains. For reasons not immediately clear — maybe he doesn’t want to be a party pooper? — he tosses dirt back on to the bones, and tells no one about his discovery. This is a big mistake.
During the wedding party at the family homestead, Piotr begins to behave strangely, then scarily. At first, his new wife and her brother Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt) write off his odd actions as alcohol-induced. As Piotr’s convulsions increase, Zgmunt suspects his son-in-law is epileptic, and has him carried away to another part of the house.
Only gradually does it become clear that the unfortunate groom has been possessed by the restless spirit of a young woman who vanished from the community decades earlier. Zaneta is understandably upset. So is Zgmunt, but for a markedly different reason: He’s worried about what his friends and neighbors will think of his son-in-law’s strange behavior, and how that might reflect on him. So he does his best to get the wedding guests as obliviously drunk as possible, in the hope they won’t notice that the dybbuk has stopped here.
“Demon” occasionally strikes faint echoes of “Contract,” Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1980 dramedy about a wedding party that brings out the worst in everyone. Indeed, the film is most entertaining when it plays its premise for laughs — noting just how embarrassing it can be to have a ghost as an unwelcome wedding guest — even though the supernatural elements are handled seriously and, for the most part, effectively.
When it comes time for a resolution, however, Wrona behaves very much like a cartoon character who, after painting himself into a corner, simply paints a door onto a nearby wall and takes his leave through it. Ambiguity is a worthy artistic goal, of course. But when “Demon” ends, the audience is left to sort through a thicket of dangling plot threads.