Movie Review: ‘Werewolf’ is Haunting, Horrifying and MesmerizingOctober 23, 2019
Toronto After Dark Film Festival
The subject of concentration camps is a difficult one to absorb, both in real-life facts and movies. With Werewolf, it’s even harder as the core of the story surrounds a group of kids who have been liberated for a Nazi camp only to find themselves trapped again, this time with food, water and vicious dogs as their enemies.
The film begins in the horrific setting of Gross-Rosen, which is a real collection of labor camps created by the Nazis in southwest Poland. The camp is liberated by the Red Army but not before the guards let loose one final massive act of violence on the prisoners, as well as their German Shepard guard dogs, who maul and devour at will. This is where we meet the eight children who are the main part of the story and watch as they are dumped at a crumbling mansion who has a lone inhabitant, an exhausted and wary Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka). While free from the forced labor camp and all its horrors, they now faced new challenges here.
This setting is as creepy and depressing as it sounds, a sort of makeshift orphanage that is short on water, food and any sense of real freedom. Russian and Nazi soldiers alike offer different threats from the surrounding forest, never mind the pack of dogs roaming free and wild, starving and killing anything that comes in their paths. Things are deteriorating inside the mansion and the threat of the dogs helps bring the kids back together to try and survive yet another horror.
While the terror of being mauled to death by killer dogs is real, along with soldiers from both sides who want to rape and steal and kill, ultimately the biggest threat comes from within the walls themselves, as we watch broken and traumatized children of different ages try to cope with new challenges, while unable to escape the mental baggage of the labor camp. It is fascinating to watch and very disturbing, a peek into the minds of those that have suffered horrors that we can’t even imagine.
Writer/director Adrian Paneck does a great job at pacing the film, building the tension both mentally and physically as the movie progresses. The problem lies in trying to figure out what kind of movie this really is. At times it is a thriller/horror, but never quite reaches that ultimate goal of terror that these kinds of films are known for. The mental/psychological aspect is much better, watching the kids progress from the labor camp to the mansion and try and deal with all the emotions they have bubbling to the surface.
Working with both dogs and kids at the same time has to be a huge challenge but Paneck pulled it off, for the most part, creating an atmosphere of tension and dread that had you on the edge of your seat. Cinematographer Dominick Danilcyk creates a great look, both with the peaceful looking landscape and close-ups on the multitude of horrors, while Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz’s score bookends the visuals well, with some wonderful moments of haunting music and well-timed silence.
There will be obvious comparisons to Lord of the Flies here, which in part make sense, but Werewolf is its own film, balancing the psychological with modern-day horrors that shocks on many levels. While the subject matter may be hard for some to digest, the uncomfortable feeling you have watching it will be worth it in the end.
Four stars out of five
Werewolf is playing at Toronto After Dark Film Festival on October 24th at 7 pm at Scotiabank Theater.