WEREWOLF [WILKOLAK]: Post-Holocaust Survival Horror Has Some Bite

My Verdict | ★★★☆☆

Very appropriate to its title, Werewolf is a shapeshifter of a film. It flits unstably between a siege-horror flick and a post-Holocaust survival drama. Fortunately, it isn’t nearly as glib nor exploitative as you might assume.

Set in the aftermath of a concentration camp liberation in Poland, Soviet forces take in a small group of orphaned survivors. The children are sent off to a dilapidated stately mansion in a secluded forest, only slightly protected from the war that continues on around it. Traumatised from their experiences in the camps and starving from the meagre rations, the children are soon forced to revisit their trauma when the adults looking after them are mauled to death. As an old, ravenous terror emerges out of the shadowy forest, the children must rally together to survive.

Playing with our expectations of lycanthropic horror with his intermittently dark POV camerawork and body-horror injuries, Polish director-writer Adrian Panek moves decidedly away from any trappings of the mythical or horror genre. Instead, Werewolf is more allegorical of its post-Holocaust context.

Rather than relying too much on jump-scares or monsters, Panek leans heavily on his young actors to deliver the inner gnawing of trauma that is really the ‘terror’ of his film. The kids do this remarkably well through their unflinching performances, forced to the fore in a screenplay that is sparse on dialogue.

As I watched, I often thought that the children embodied the remarks made by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi on the moral ‘meanness’ required to survive in the Nazi death camps. At times, they are feral and cruel- striking each other, withholding scraps of food, or stamping a rat to death during a game of ‘tag’. In other unexpected moments, their sense of innocence, ingenuity and begrudging compassion shine through.

Notably, Kamil Polnisiak gives a disturbing, pitiable performance as the be-speckled Wladek. He’s like an anti-Piggy from Goldings’ Lord of the Flies- his intelligence and sense of group rejection allow him to become unnervingly twisted. Sonia Mietielica also provides a conflicted performance in Hanka, forced to become a maternal figure while she also struggles to emerge into womanhood. Fundamentally, this youth ensemble provides a challenging but engaging watch as they cope with deep insecurities within and uncompromising violence without.

Otherwise, Panek creates effective (if conventional) horror-survival action sequences that I would liken to Jurassic Park or an episode of The Walking Dead (replace dinosaurs or zombies with rabid Nazi dogs) though its undertaken with visual panache. While there’s plenty of tension and explicit gore in Werewolf (and a fair share of dramatic contrivance), ultimately the film is more evocatively brutal when it sinks its teeth into its context.