Demon (2016)

threehalfstar

Weddings can be overwhelming, dizzying affairs. This is especially true of the larger productions where a few cases of hard liquor & an overly-expansive list of guests mix to create an emotional powder keg of celebration & exhaust. Think back to the wedding scene in Goodfellas, lines of happy Catholic Italians lining up to dispense money & kisses to Henry’s new bride to the point where her head is spinning. The Polish horror film Demon turns that nauseous energy into a full-blown nightmare. Demon is ambitious in its themes, playing the past atrocities of WWII as a ghost that haunts Poland, a country-sized burial ground, and building its story around the undead spirits of traditional Jewish folklore. At the same time, though, it can be easily understood as a very conventional haunted house ghost story, one that plays out over a single night of the celebratory Party Out of Bounds mania of High-Rise. Audiences more in tune with the history of Poland’s tragic WWII horrors or the intricacies of the dybbuk in Jewish folklore might get a lot more out of Demon than I did as an outsider, but the film is still effective enough as a traditional ghost story without that insight. Its dizzying wedding setting in particular helps set it apart in that regard.

A young outsider joins a community of Polish Jews by marrying into the fold. While clearing the grounds of an old property his bride-to-be inherited from her deceased grandfather, he uncovers a literal skeleton from the past. It’s a discovery that changes him & his relationship with his new homeland in profound & disturbing ways. As a wedding ritual increasingly devolves into drunken, celebratory madness, our protagonist also loses hold of his own stability, both physical & spiritual. Strangers party in slow motion to an eerie score while the groom continually returns to the burial site he mistakenly uncovered. In his obsession with the grave he gradually becomes something new, something very ugly & very dangerous. Demon plays off the Body Snatchers-esque fear of never truly knowing your spouse as well as traditional genre film hallmarks like demonic possession, haunted spaces, and body horror. However, it avoids any clear cut, straightforward resolutions that usually accompany that territory. The mystery of what, exactly, is happening might in fact be too slow of a reveal, to the point of distraction, even if it never actually reaches a clear destination. Still, the film’s mix of otherworldly dread with manic, drunken celebration & Old World superstition is enough to make it an arresting experience overall.

There aren’t a lot of specific elements in Demon where I can say you won’t find its genre thrills anywhere else, but I do believe the lead performance by Itay Tiran as the doomed groom is one that required a lot of ambition and a lot of naked bravery. The only other performance in the horror genre I can liken it to is Isabelle Adjani’s iconic turn in the cult film Possession (which was also helmed by a Polish director, appropriately enough). Both roles ask their performers to play several different people in one: the unsuspecting spouse, the inhuman raving lunatic, and the in-transition middle state of the body contortionist. The tunnel scene in Possession is a rare moment of dramatic physicality that you won’t find in many other performances, horror or otherwise, no matter how vulnerable. Tiran somehow approaches that same naked, savage, maddening vulnerability in Demon, no small feat, and his starring turn is a lot of what makes the film feel special, if not entirely unique.

Representing Jewish folklore in horror cinema dates as far back as The Golem in the early 20th Century, but it’s still somewhat of an infrequent occurrence. The way Demon weaves its ancient narrative into modern Polish anxieties over the ghosts of past wars is fascinating and open-ended enough to be engaged with as an art film rather than a formulaic genre picture. Still, the film works just fine in a conventional horror context as well, telling an effectively unnerving ghost story against the Party Out of Bounds structural backdrop I have such a soft spot for. The film’s real world & fantastical horrors clash with the celebratory fantasy of its wedding setting remarkably well, represented visually in the mixture of its crisp formal wear with the grime of its natural forces: dirt, mud, rain, wind. The cheery visage of a wedding ritual is cinematically transformed into the eerie nightmare of demonic ritual, one that seemingly summons an overwhelming force of Nature & an inescapable ghost of the past to tear down the national façade of healed wounds & a guilt-free future. Demon might not be the most original or the most terrifying horror film you see all year, but its thematic ambition, the distinctive mania of its setting, and Itay’s lead performance all are sure to haunt you well after you leave the theater, maybe even for longer than the more eccentric films it casually resembles.

-Brandon Ledet

The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

We tend to think of the modern era as a creatively defunct cesspool of franchise obsession where original properties are a rare gamble in a never-ending ocean of sequels, prequels, reboots and reimaginings. The idea of the film franchise has been around for a long while, though. Consider The Golem: How He Came Into the World. It’s one of the most infamous horror films of the silent era, yet it’s a prequel in a three part series (in which the other two films are considered lost works). Think about that the next time you refuse to give Prometheus II or Leprechaun 4: In Space a fighting chance based on principle. There’s a long history of precedent in the never-ending horror franchise.

An ancient German Expressionism creature feature about Jewish mysticism, The Golem: How He Came Into the World bounces back & forth from being an incredible work that nearly rivals Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon in sheer beauty & ambition and the most standard issue silent horror you can conjure in your mind. After consulting the stars a wizardly group of rabbis foresee disaster for their community, which prompts them to start constructing a monstrous creature for their own protection, The Golem. It’s more or less the same story as the North Korean kaiju classic Pulgasari and is inspired by real life Jewish folklore. When the Jewish people are forced to evacuate by emperor’s decree, The Golem is constructed out of clay & brought to life through prayer to be the muscle that protects them from persecution. As with Pulgasari, he eventually becomes dangerously erratic, however, and poses a threat to the very people he was designed to keep safe.

Part of the reason I fail to connect with this film as much as its legacy propped up my expectations for was the design of The Golem himself. Portrayed onscreen by the film’s director, Paul Wegener, there just isn’t much to the lumbering bastard. His slow, awkward, Frankenstein-esque movements are amusing enough, especially on his first errand: buying a rabbi’s groceries; it makes total sense that the character would later appeal in the comedic sequel The Golem and the Dancing Girl. He’s not very convincing as a terror, however. His entire design more or less amounts to what it’d look like if pro wrestler Dave Bautista wore an Asian-cut wig. The Golem’s design is tied to a long history of tradition & folklore, but considering the terror of films like Nosferatu, The Phantom Carriage, and The Man who Laughs pulled off visually in the same era, he just doesn’t cut it as a silent movie monster.

That’s not to say that The Golem: How He Came Into the World is lacking in terms of striking imagery in a more general sense. The film’s beautiful, hand-built sets are a feat of expressionism in sculpture & architecture. Its tinted film cells have a Masque of the Red Death vibe in how they differentiate between separate interior spaces: reds, blues, greens, pinks, etc. The Star of David is employed as some kind of powerful source of magic, appearing in the starry sky & bringing The Golem to life during some kind of mystic ritual. Judaism is portrayed here as a kind of ancient cult complete with spells, fires, robes, and circles of smoke. In its best moments the film recalls the ancient mysticism of historically-minded works like Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages & The Witch. Like The Witch, it even claims to be “based on events in an old chronicle”, despite being based on a then-recent novel.

There’s, of course, a few points of historical context to the film that also makes it of interest. A German production before the rise of Nazism, The Golem can be very interesting in the way it portrays Judaism as a religion and as a culture. On the one hand the film has a way of othering the Jewish people as some kind of mystic band of magical weirdos. At the same time, though, they act as a sympathetic underdog culture always suffering under the tyrannical whims of uncaring royalty. In one particularly poignant scene the rabbi who created The Golem tries to change the emperor’s heart by employing a vision of his people’s plight to “amuse” the court. This sorcery is essentially what Roger Ebert refers to as “the empathy machine.” Showing oppressors what is fundamentally a moving picture wins the rabbi no sympathy for his people & the heartless dandies instead laugh in his face, causing a life-threatening scene with The Golem at its center.

With a better creature design The Golem: How He Came Into the World might’ve reached all-time classic territory. As is, I’m just not feeling that with the film as a whole. It’s a pretty decent silent horror with occasional flashes of over-the-top brilliance. I was entertained, but I wasn’t floored.

-Brandon Ledet