Wilczyca — meaning "she-wolf", and pronounced something like "vil-chee-tsa" — has a high reputation in Poland, and it's easy to see why. Poland has never produced very many horror films, so a home-grown werewolf movie must have had a certain curiosity value when it was first released. More importantly, it's not a bad movie; and unlike (for example) the troubling art-horror movies of Andrzej Zulawski, it has plenty to endear itself to an average local audience. For instance: it's got a clearly-defined hero, who's a Polish patriot embroiled in one of 19th-century Poland's many rebellions against the occupying Prussian forces. It's got a truly devilish villain, who revels in debauchery and mocks the cross. Its historical setting is well-realized, and it features some gorgeous winter photography. And it all ends in suitably uplifting tragedy. What's not to love?
Well... how about a peculiar lack of dramatic conflict, in a story that really cries out for it1?
Clearly there is a lot going on in the movie, and a great deal of thought has been put into the screenplay; all the ingredients are in place for a spectacularly good horror film. Had Wilczyca concentrated more on the relationships and motiviations between characters, it could have been great. Unfortunately, it never goes far beneath the surface of its story, and the result is a missed opportunity.
The hero of the story is Kacper, a former cavalry officer who (as the movie begins) is just returning to his farm after the latest in a long series of uprising against the Prussians. Unfortunately, Kacper's long absences from home have left his wife Maryna thoroughly disgusted with him. If he's abandoned her, then she's abandoned everything that means anything to him: fidelity, propriety, religion... When Kacper arrives, his elder brother Mateusz greets him with the news that Maryna is in very bad shape: she's just lost the baby she'd been carrying. Apparently she'd tried to induce an abortion, and had damaged her internal organs severely. Maryna's pregnancy comes as news to Kacper, who's been away far longer than 9 months.
Old Dr. Goldberg warns Kacper that nothing further can be done for Maryna. Only God can save her now... but Maryna has no use for God. As she lies dying, she tells her horrified husband that she burned the family crucifix on Candlemas Eve. It's a different Entity she serves... and all she needs now, she says, is the strange package she clutches to her bloodied breast. He'd called her a bitch, she says, and now she's about to die like a dog. But with her dying breath, she promises she will come back and track Kacper down... not as a bitch, but as a she-wolf.
Kacper is badly shaken: as much as he had learned to loathe Maryna for what she'd become, he had loved her once. But as bad as the situation seems to be, it soon gets worse. That strange package Maryna died clutching turns out to contain some sort of pagan talisman: the severed forepaw of a wolf. Mateusz warns Kacper not to touch it; as the two men struggle to figure out what to do with the blasphemous object, they hear the sound of a wolf-call outside the farm house.
It comes as an even further shock to Kacper that nobody but Mateusz will help him bury his wife. Mateusz is forced to confess that the local vicar actually turned his back and walked away when he asked him to officiate. But as the two men cart the coffin across the pitiless frozen landscape, Kacper finds out just what kind of help Mateusz is anxious to give — and this plunges the whole situation into the realm of nightmare.
Mateusz stops the horse well short of the cemetery, finds a solid-looking aspen branch, and begins whittling a wooden stake. Kacper asks him what on earth he thinks he's doing, and Mateusz replies, "It's for her..." and motions toward the coffin. When Kacper protests that he'll never let his brother violate Maryna's body that way, Mateusz snorts: it's Kacper who needs to drive the stake through her heart, not he.
Kacper wants nothing to do with this, though Mateusz insists it's his duty as her husband (and it's not lost on us that if Kacper had been around to, ahem, give her the wood earlier, none of this might have been necessary). Still Kacper refuses, so it's up to his brother to stick it to Maryna.
Now, the wooden-stake-through-the-heart scene has become commonplace in horror movies, but rarely has it been done so realistically and effectively as it's done here. The bleakness of the winter scene, all snow and mud; the shabbiness of the wooden coffin, and the horse-cart bearing it; the loneliness of the drab little cemetery; these things all contribute to the dreary, comfortless realism of the scene. As Mateusz hammers the stake into the corpse's chest, the impact pulls the shroud off Maryna's cold grey face (and even though the repeated blows make the actress move her eyelids involuntarily, it's still a shocking moment). There's no clichéd gout of blood that comes squirting up out of the coffin, and certainly Maryna doesn't sit up and scream. The scene plays out just as you'd imagine it would in real life; and far from bringing peace to anybody, it simply upsets Kacper more than he can bear. Shortly afterwards, he leaves the farm to his brother; then he travels far away to take a position with his former commander, Count Ludwik, as keeper of the Count's house and grounds.
Count Ludwik is probably the most interesting character in the film: though he is a nobleman with a military history, he's also weak-willed and cowardly. As a patriot, he knows what he must do for his beleaguered country, and tries with every meager fiber of his soul to live up to his duty; but he's completely unfit for heroism.
One day, Ludwik's friend Count Smorawinski arrives unexpectedly at the estate. Smorawinski has driven his horse so frantically across the country that the poor beast dies as soon as its master dismounts. His haste is understandable: Smorawinski brings the news that the nearby village of Jarmolice has been sacked by the Prussians. The invaders know of the two Counts' involvement in the latest insurrection, and are marching across the snowy plains at this very moment to seize them. There's no choice now but to try to flee to Hungary before the army arrives.
Ludwik is thrown into complete panic by the news — but rather than flee immediately, Ludwik becomes paralyzed with indecision. He can't go now, he protests. What about his house? What about his wife, Julia? He works himself up into such a useless frenzy that Smorawinski becomes enraged. There's clearly no time for delay, so Smorawinski eventually suggests he put his farewell to his wife into a letter. Good idea, says Ludwik — and sits down to compose the letter immediately.
Ludwik's dithering proves so frustrating to his friend that just at the moment when Ludwig is finally pursuaded to leave, Smorawinski suffers a heart attack and collapses. When Kacper bends to put his ear to Smorawinski's chest, the ailing man's crucifix cuts his face. The gout of blood on his cheek looks as though God himself had placed a mark on Kacper, hinting at the doom that is following him.
We get a pretty good idea of the form that doom will take when we get our first look at the Countess Julia (though the movie purposely delays the introduction: as Count Ludwik makes his way through the manor's secret passage that leads to her chambers, we hear her crying "More! Harder! Harder!". We know this can't possibly mean what it seems to mean — and sure enough, when the Count arrives, he finds her maid Hortensja pulling tight the straps of her corset. It seems like a feeble joke, but the real punchline is delayed still further: since Ludwik is too timid to consummate their marriage, Julia's been sleeping with the maid). The Count's cruel wife is played by the same actress who played Maryna, and like Maryna she rejects everything her husband stands for. There's a suggestion that the resemblance between the two women did not become obvious until well after Maryna's death — certainly Kacper himself doesn't notice it at first; but later, when confronted with a portrait of his dead wife, he identifies the woman in the painting as the Countess.
Julia's total rejection of her husband extends all the way to his Polish nationalism. When Count Ludwik finally sets off on his escape to Hungary, Julia not only stays behind but welcomes the Prussians when they arrive. And no wonder: the officer in charge of the search for Count Ludwik is Captain Otto von Fürstenberg, a dashing young man who had been Julia's lover in Warsaw years before. In a flashback, we see the younger Julia tending to a wolf that had been found on her father's estate; when Otto tries to feed the animal, it bites the nervous young man's hand. Julia laughs as she binds Otto's wound... only she is strong enough that the wolves obey her.
Count Ludwik's escape, though secondary to the plot, is almost as terrifying and memorable as the burial of Maryna. The harsh winter landscape is overwhelmed by fog as night falls; Kacper, riding ahead to watch for Prussian roadblocks, gets too far ahead of Ludwik and Smorawinski and is forced to send his slow-witted scout back to look for them.
The fugitives' plan is to stay the night in a nearby inn... but the scout, seeing the place for the first time, rides back to Kacper and refuses to go any nearer to the place. He says he saw a sinister figure standing outside — someone who was obviously not the old Jewish innkeeper. Kacper's coachman begins telling him a story about something he saw when he rode by this crossroads years ago; but before he can get to the spooky bit, Kacper silences him. There seems to be someone walking toward them through the woods — a woman dressed in a nightgown, on this brutally cold night. Though the figure quickly disappears, both Kacper and the coachman are left with the feeling that something even more terrible than the Prussians is following them in the darkness.
As Kacper fights to keep his horses from panicking, the Count's coach appears from the fog. The other coach had had something of a fright, too: an enormous wolf had suddenly appeared in front of them. A wolf? muses Kacper. For days now, he'd been seeing a wolf circling the Count's estate, as though it were looking for him. Could this be the same animal?
The fugitives arrive at the inn, only to find it deserted. The Prussians have been and gone, and left their calling card: the body of the innkeeper is dangling from the porch ("Pity," muses Count Ludwik; "He was a good Jew."). Faced with the horror of war, Kacper soon forgets about the supernatural. In the morning, the sobered Counts continue their flight to the border, while Kacper is dispatched back to the estate to protect the house and the Countess from the Prussians.
Except, of course, that the Countess doesn't need protection. She's perfectly at home with the dashing Captain Otto — betraying her husband, her country, and even her intensely jealous maid. It's Kacper who seems to be in the most danger, as something seems to be stalking him, and drawing ever closer. First, he seems to see a ghastly apparition in his bedroom late at night. Since Kacper is feverish from the strain of the flight through the frozen forest, he's tempted to dismiss it as a hallucination. However, in the morning Kacper discovers that the lurking something has claimed his faithful dog Figa.
(Normally in movies like this, you'd either see a perfectly healthy dog made up to look as though it's been savaged, or you'd be shown a fake dog that's been torn to pieces. Here, though, it looks horribly like they've mortally injured a real dog and filmed it as it struggled. The dog is shaking and spasming as the actor playing Kacper approaches it. This could be because someone off-screen is shaking it... the shot is framed so that this is possible. But as Kacper lifts the animal in his arms, the poor creature's tongue lolls from its head, and it hangs suspiciously limp. Maybe the blood is fake, and maybe the animal is simply anaesthetized. I'd like to think that's the case, particularly since the dog is such a beautiful and loyal animal. I can't believe anyone would do such a horrible thing to a dog in the name of entertainment. Unfortunately, the scene is much too realistic for me to be sure.)
Kacper gets a further clue what might be stalking him when his brother Mateusz pays an unexpected visit. He's come to give up his tenancy of Kacper's farm. Since the Prussians arrived, there have been... disturbances. During a battle with partisans, the Prussians shelled the local cemetery. Graves were destroyed, and rotting body parts were strewn throughout the countryside. One of the graves which received a direct hit was that of Maryna. The stake Matuesz had driven into her body was left amid the fragments of her coffin... but her body has never been found.
It was one day after the cemetery incident that Mateusz was awakened in the middle of the night. Grabbing a candle, he checked the old farmhouse room by room... only to find someone waiting for him by the hearthside. It was Maryna, in an advanced state of decomposition. Mateusz had fainted... and was revived the next morning by the town watchman, who'd come to warn him about an enormous wolf that had been seen in the area. To Mateusz, the inference is clear: Maryna has come back from the grave as a werewolf. He hands Kacper a small portrait of Maryna, which he can't stand to have anywhere near him. Kacper, however, fails to recognize the woman in the picture: to him, it's clearly a portrait of the Countess Julia!
From that point on, the Countess, as though aware of Kacper's thoughts, takes a great delight in flaunting her infidelity in front of him. Can it be true? Is his dead wife once again mocking his faith as a husband, a Catholic and a patriot? The wise old Doctor Goldberg, sensing his confusion, directs him to a passage in the New Testament: "When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first."
So Kacper takes up his gun and goes hunting for wolves.
He manages to find the wilczyca waiting for him, almost taunting him. He shoots at the animal, and is certain he's given it a mortal wound... but the beast runs away, barely injured. When he follows the trail of blood, he comes upon the Countess Julia on her horse. She's busy bandaging her hand (just as she'd bandaged the hand of Captain Otto so many years ago). She claims to have cut it somehow; but Kacper realizes his normal bullets are not going to work against this particular she-wolf.
I understand that the Countess Julia is the hissable embodiment of evil in this movie. The actress Iwona Biełska plays her part with melodramatic glee, to the point where we can almost imagine her twirling an imaginary moustache (no worries, though: Krzysztof Jasiński's Kacper has moustache enough for everybody). We've already seen in the flashbacks how much she delights in her perfidy, so clearly the Countess is the perfect empty vessel for the Devil when he looks around for a place to pour the spirit of Maryna.
The subtext of the film for Polish audiences of the mid-1980's is pretty obvious. This was the time of the rise of solidarność and the beginning of the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. It's easy to see a political message in the struggles of the noble Polish nationalists against an invader who's in league with the Devil himself. It's also easy to see, in this context, why the villain in the film should be given no redeeming features at all.
But from a broader perspective, the movie makes a serious error by never allowing us to get a glimpse of the true Maryna. What must it take to force a woman to renounce her husband, her country and her God? Surely Kacper must bear some of the blame. But the movie takes Kacper's side from the very beginning, and never allows us to see Maryna as anything other than a demon. And since she's a demon, the Good Man Kacper never spares a thought for the wife he's lost — other than the occasional unconvincing murmur that he'd loved her once.
How much of a dramatic mistake this is becomes apparent when the Countess Julia begins to taunt Kacper. Remember, the spirit of the dead Maryna wants revenge against Kacper, not Ludwik. Yet as the story plays out, it's Ludwik who stands to lose the most from Julia's betrayal. Julia is really only offending Kacper's patriotism and his sense of propriety. Was that worth the trip back from the grave?
How much different the situation would have been if we'd been allowed to see the slightest remaining spark of attraction between Kacper and Maryna! If we had, it would have given an entirely different meaning to the moment when Kacper failed to recognize his own wife in the portrait. There would have been some actual tension in the confrontations between Kacper and the Countess: Kacper would still have been furious over Julia's many betrayals, but also consumed with a passion to have her back for himself... even at the cost of his loyalty and honor. And for her part, Maryna/Julia would have had the slightest hint of ambiguity in her pursuit of Kacper. Thinking of ambiguity, it might also have been nice if we'd been allowed to think for even a moment that the resemblance between Maryna and Julia might be an illusion, brought out by Kacper's sense of loss and the stress of the rebellion. Any and all of this would have added up to a much richer story.
But that's not what we're given. Kacper has no regrets, and the sight of Julia/Maryna awakens nothing in him but righteous anger. He is a man's man, only devoted to God and Country, and he's all the more boring for it. Sure, he exits the film with sword fights and blazing pistols, but his heroic combat against other men just underscores how poorly the film has handled the conflicts between men and women. In fact, Kacper's actual confrontation with the wilczyca is brief and disappointing... and that's putting it charitably: it's not really a confrontation at all; and in spite of the derring-do that follows, it's far from Kacper's finest moment.
Some horror films are labeled misogynistic because they treat women as helpless screaming pieces of meat. Wilczyca has a slightly different attitiude: it simply dismisses its female characters as unworthy of our full attention. You can't blame Iwona Biełska: she certainly puts her heart and soul into her portrayal of the two evil women. Unfortunately, the script won't let either Maryna or Julia rise to the heights Biełska's intense performance could have brought them to. It's a shame, because so much of Wilczyca is so very well done. If the relationships between the characters had been a little less superficial, Wilczyca could have been much more than the average horror flick it turned out to be.
And then there's the dog. I'd still like to think that scene was a revoltingly convincing mock-up. But considering the movie begins with a shot of a hawk tearing the flesh off the carcass of a horse, I doubt that the welfare of the on-set animals was uppermost on the filmmakers' minds. All things considered, I probably won't be watching Wilczyca again to find out.
1. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I had some lousy movie-going experiences during my one brief visit to Poland in 1996, and that may color my reaction to Wilczyca ever so slightly. You see, in Poland they have a slightly different way of translating foreign films. Rather than use subtitles, or even overdubbing the dialogue using local actors, the Polish method is generally to hire a reader — not even an actor, by the sound of it, but a reader — who proceeds to speak a translation of the dialogue over the existing sound of the film. No attempt is made to match the translation to the characters' timings or lip-movements (to say nothing of the actors' inflections or the acoustical variations in the original locations), and the reader speaks the translations for characters of both sexes. It's by far the most intrusive method of translating I've ever experienced, and for a full-length feature film the effect can be stultifying.
Of course, I was having a bad time in Poland anyway, to which the movies just added additional headache. I had gone to participate in a music festival, where I was scheduled to give a presentation on a program I'd been working on that brought together contemporary American electronic music with visual art. I arrived overburdened with equipment, so it's predictable that I was robbed almost as soon as I arrived in Warsaw. The robbers knew what not to steal, though; so they left me overburdened with equipment, though considerably lighter in funds. Then, during my rehearsal, my one and only power adapter burned out, leaving me without the use of my slide projectors. My kind friends at the university drove me all over Silesia looking for a new one — the word przedłużacz is still burned into my brain — but at that time, there were none to be found. So I was forced to give my presentation without the whole visual component... which meant we sat and listened to tapes for an hour.
As you might imagine, I was feeling pretty miserable and sorry for myself when I made my way back to my hotel... and when I got there, I had to face the Evil Concièrge, a vile old man who made it his personal duty to see that I was as uncomfortable as possible.
After dinner and a good deal of wódka, I found myself in the tiny hotel lobby, where the television (the only one in the hotel, and one of those gigantic old Soviet-era monstrosities) was playing unnoticed. The Evil Concièrge was out in the hall sweeping up. I looked up at the screen, and saw that the program was very familiar to me: they were showing Horror Express, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee! Yay! Here, at last, was an old friend to take my mind off my misery. The monotone reader could hardly distract me: I knew the movie so well that I didn't even need the dialogue. Unfortunately, the Evil Concièrge heard my little involuntary cry of delight, and came scurrying in as fast as he could. Seeing me watching the television in rapt attention, he stalked over, and with a decisive gesture he turned the channel. Then he turned and crossed his arms clearly planning on camping out in front of the television all night if necessary and gave me a nasty, triumphant look, as though to say: "What do you intend to do about that?"