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Non-Review Review: Wilkolak (“Werewolf”)

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Werewolf is pretty solid “Nazisploitation”, those sorts of genre (usually horror) pieces that play off the imagery and reality of the Second World War.

Werewolf is certainly stronger than other recent examples of the genre, such as Overlord. Focusing on a group of children Holocaust survivors who find themselves menaced by a pack of feral dogs from the camp, Werewolf is a story about trauma, violence and victimhood. It is a film about how these things self-perpetuate, and how these cycles of abuse need to be broken. Writer and director Adrian Panek frames this story through the lens of horror.

This certainly makes sense. The Second World War and the Holocaust were a trauma on a global scale, but most obviously on the European continent. The concentration camps were build outside of Germany, spreading the horror across the region. Poland was home to six extermination camps, something that leaves an indelible mark on a region. Werewolf navigates this trauma through  familiar horror movie staples; the orphans in the gothic mansion, the haunted woods, the allegorical monster, the group that threatens to fracture and fray under pressure.

The only real problem with Werewolf is that it’s simply not scary enough to work as a horror movie.

To be fair to Werewolf, the opening scenes set at a concentration camp convey a sense of chaos and brutality. The Russians are sweeping through Poland, and the Germans are panicking. The camera sweeps through a concentration camp that is burning and collapsing; the guards are extracting the last of their sadistic pleasure from the inmates before brutally murdering them. It is harrowing viewing.

In this introductory sequence, Panek underscores the casualness of the brutality by keeping the camera in motion. There is so much horror unfolding that it is impossible to take the time to focus on any individual instance; there is always more to be seen. The biggest problem with Werewolf is that nothing in the rest of the film can match the visceral horror of the opening five minutes. This is a tangible problem in trying to keep the audience engaged with a basic siege narrative as the rest of the film does.

After the evacuation of the camp, the children are taken to a decaying old mansion in the woods. One of most interesting aspects of Werewolf is the way in which it breezes through familiar horror movie clichés and recontextualises them in light of this very specific and very historical trauma. The set-up of a bunch of children in a remote mansion menaced by some primal force is a stock horror or supernatural narrative; The Secret of Marrowbone, The Others, The Innocents.

The plot of Werewolf often seems stitched together from horror movie clichés. The mansion sits in the middle of a vast woodland, which is stalked by monsters and predators. Werewolf is not exactly subtle about what its monsters represent. “Is it true that the SS have turned into wolves?” one child asks after the early attacks. At another point, a character makes a witty pun about the woods being stalked by “Wehrwolves.” While rabid canines lurk between the trees, there is also a fear that there many Germans hiding away in bunkers hidden amid the forest.

The film eventually evolves into something similar to a zombie movie, when the house comes under attack from a pack of guard dogs that have also been “liberated” from the concentration camp. The animals have developed a taste for human flesh, and are hungry. They circle the house like a ravenous horde, forcing the children to turn the decaying mansion into a fortress. Again, this is a stock horror template, very much a zombie movie with a pack of wild dogs.

Indeed, several of the key story beats are lifted directly from iconic zombie movies. The desperate dash through the monstrous horde towards a truck parked outside feels lifted from the original Dawn of the Dead. The manner in which the constant pressure of the zombie horde outside the doors forces the group to turn on itself, and how that implosion is driven by grotesque appetites and desires, recalls the third act of 28 Days Later…

All of this works relatively well as an allegory for the process of dealing with trauma. Werewolf is a film about trying to reclaim some sense of civilised order after a horrific disruption to social norms. One of the central tensions in Werewolf is whether the children can come to see themselves as human beings after spending years being treated as little more than animals; the film includes an extended sequence of the kids learning to eat with knives and forks rather than with their hands.

There are questions about the extent to which victims of that sort of systemic abuse internalise the suffering that has been inflicted upon them. Repeatedly, the children fall into familiar routines established at the concentration camps, almost treating them as comforts in a world that lacks the rigid structure that horror afforded them. Similarly, there is a question of whether the dogs that have been unleashed from the camp are truly irredeemably monstrous or if it might be possible for even these creatures to recover something of their earlier selves.

Werewolf suggests that it is necessary to cast off the labels and imagery of oppression; it is no coincidence that the film spends so much time fixating on the children learning to cast aside their uniforms from the camp and wear clothes that normal children would wear. At the same time, Werewolf suggests that suggest trauma can never be completely erased or forgotten; one character tries to carve off the serial number tattooed on his arm, only to learn that it does not come off.

All of this is relatively clever. However, the film simply doesn’t work as a horror movie. All of the film’s horror beats are telegraphed too far ahead of time. All of the film’s developments are predictable and stock, to the point that it’s entirely possible for the audience to “figure out” the resolution at around the half-way point. There is no innovation and no elaboration upon any of the tropes with which the film is playing. Despite the metaphorical power of its central premise, the actual storytelling in Werewolf is too paint-by-numbers.

More than that, Werewolf simply isn’t scary enough. This is essentially a siege narrative about children who menaced by a pack of hungry animals ready to rend them limb from limb. However, there’s never a real sense of thrill or tension in any of the sequences. All of the jump scares are painfully telegraphed, and the animal attacks are cut together in a very clumsy manner. There’s nothing in Werewolf that makes the pulse quicken or the grip tighten.

As a side note, and like Velvet Buzzsaw earlier in the year, Werewolf reminds me a great deal of the work of James Wong and Glen Morgan on nineties American television. This is not to suggest anything inappropriate, but instead to suggest that Morgan and Wong’s understanding of the genre remains effective more than a quarter of a century later. In particular, Werewolf made me want to rewatch their superlative Beware the Dog from the early second season of Millennium. In fact, everybody should just watch the second season of Millennium.

Werewolf is a great idea, executed in a very mediocre fashion.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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