HELLHOLE. Horror made in Poland
Over the years it has been established that it is impossible to make a good horror film in Poland, and I guess the filmmakers themselves also believed in this thesis – probably the last attempts to make Polish horror cinema in the 20th century stopped in the 1980s (not counting the really bad films by Marek Piestrak). And I guess it’s because of this lack of interest in the horror genre by Polish filmmakers that to this day any Polish production that fits into the convention of horror cinema is an event for viewers. Hellhole contradicts claim that it is impossible to make horror films in Poland. Well, it is possible, and at a completely non-Polish level!
The opening sequence of the latest work by Bartosz M. Kowalski, whose work I’ve been following since his first documentary Moja Wola, proves that we’re not dealing with amateurism here – the associations with Stigmata (1999) are most legitimate, and I’d be surprised beyond words if Kowalski wasn’t inspired by Rupert Wainwright’s film. From the first scenes of Hellhole, we learn that years ago, in deep socialism, a cursed child was born in Poland – but what connection does this have to the story of the investigation of officer Marek (Piotr Zurawski) 30 years later, who infiltrates a monastery of exorcist fathers run by Prior Andrzej (Olaf Lubaszenko)? The answer to this question is fairly obvious, but rather than give away the secrets of the plot of Kowalski’s film, I’ll only add that the investigative plot brings Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986) to mind, a famous work that premiered a year earlier than the time of Hellhole’s plot. Coincidence? I don’t think so!
After the two parts of Nobody Sleeps in the Wood Tonight Bartosz M. Kowalski could successfully claim to be the leading representative of the horror genre among Polish filmmakers, but it must be admitted that in the case of the two previous gory Netflix productions Mr. Bartosz drifted a bit – especially in the case of the second part, where playing with convention turned into a caricature of the genre. Hellhole also, admittedly, contains elements of “variations on a theme,” but in its essential part it is fully aware of its purpose – as a horror film it is supposed, first and foremost, to build a terrifying atmosphere and – most simply – to scare. This Kowalski’s film succeeds really well, and even despite the rather unfortunate casting choices. And it’s not that Piotr Żurawski or Olaf Lubaszenko are actors with insufficient talent – quite the contrary! It’s just that both are strongly distinctive, and more often found themselves in comedy repertoire than in horror. However, everything must be tried in life, and both the young Zurawski and the experienced Lubaszenko exemplify their roles – especially the latter finds in himself layers of darkness that I would never have suspected Mr. Olaf of.
Horror movies about exorcisms are basically a separate subgenre of horror cinema. Showing the struggle of representatives of the Catholic Church with various demons has already grown into a classic horror duel. However, I did not expect that a solid production that falls into this category could be created in Poland. It turns out that if you are an enthusiast like Bartosz M. Kowalski, you can successfully scare Polish viewers, and at the same time do it at such a level that even viewers worldwide would be pleased. Hellhole is no worse than many Hollywood productions about exorcisms – perhaps with the exception of the Conjuring series, which has already established its own separate weight category, close to a blockbuster – and the possible success of Netflix’s latest Polish production may mean that there will be imitators willing to develop horror cinema in Poland. Given the popularity of horror films among global audiences, I see no reason why our cinematography – after all, Europe’s leader – shouldn’t finally have a slightly more prominent presence in the horror genre.