Saturday, May 29, 2021

Wilczyca (1983)

... aka: A nőstényfarkas kisértete (Ghost of the Female Wolf)
... aka: Die Wölfin
... aka: She-Wolf, The
... aka: Vlcice (Wolves)
... aka: Wolf, The

Directed by:
Marek Piestrak

Set in 1848 in a remote, snow-draped area of Poland, this centers around liberation fighter Kacper Wosiński (Krzysztof Jasiński), who's just returned home from a long trip away. The relationship he's had with his miserable wife Maryna (Iwona Bielska) wasn't a loving or good one before he left... and it's about to get even worse. While he was gone, Mary found herself a lover, got pregnant and then decided to try to terminate the pregnancy herself. In the process, she's torn up her insides so badly that a doctor cannot even help her. On her deathbed, Maryna is found clutching a severed wolf paw and curses her husband right before passing away. Eerily, a den of wolves are heard howling right outside the moment she does.

Soon after, Kacper finds out Maryna was involved in some other unsavory things like drunken debauchery, burning all of the crucifixes in the home and practicing witchcraft. She earned herself such a bad reputation that all of the local clergymen have sworn her off and now even refuse to give her last rites or help with her funeral. Before the body is buried, Kacper's concerned brother Mateusz (Jerzy Prażmowski) suggest they drive a wooden stake through the body in case Maryna should rise from the dead and make Kacper's life a living hell from beyond the grave. He refuses the offer, so Mateusz takes matters into his own hands and stakes her. Afterward, Kacper signs over the family home to his brother and informs him that he never plans on returning.

Some time passes and Kacper, who was a "comrade-in-arms during the insurrection," has moved up in the world from his humble beginnings to the pillared mansion of liberation army leader Count Ludwik (Stanisław Brejdygant) and his unhappy, much-younger bride Julia (also Bielska). Julia's life parallels that of Maryna in that she's sick of her husband constantly being busy, gone and emotionally and physically unavailable to her. After all, she's young, bored, sick of being stuck inside all the time and even sicker of him constantly being consumed with political matters. Not even her openly carrying on a lesbian affair with her maid, Hortensja (Hanna Stankówna), gets much of a reaction out of Ludwik, who's set to leave for a long period yet again. This time he decides to skip out on goodbyes and the associated drama and just send a letter later on. He entrusts Kacper with looking over both his house and his wife while he's away.

After helping to escort Ludwik and their on-the-lam associate Count Wiktor Smorawinski (Leon Niemczyk) out of the country, Kacper returns to the estate feeling ill and is diagnosed with having "swamp fever." Yet that doesn't really explain why he was already having visions of a large female wolf stalking the grounds and had spotted a ghost in the woods prior to getting sick... Nor does it explain why he finds his missing pet dog dead and wolf tracks surrounding it. Countess Julia, who, judging by a couple of flashbacks, seems to have always had a cruel streak to her, starts behaving even stranger than normal upon the arrival of handsome soldier Otto von Furstenberg (Olgierd Lukaszewicz). Otto was a former lover of Julia's and he's returned to rekindle their relationship. The fact she is now married isn't of much concern to either and Kacper's attempts to cock block the lascivious countess are unsuccessful.

Kacper's brother shows up to visit and informs him that not only did he have a creepy encounter with Maryna's rotting corpse ghost but the cemetery housing her body had been destroyed during a battle, thus removing the wooden stake and releasing her evil spirit. Kacper begins to suspect the spirit has somehow possessed Julia. Before long, our hero is consulting a doctor friend (Henryk Machalica) and asking him to make a special bullet using silver and holy water.

Sad to say, I was anticipating a little better here, perhaps because this is often held up as one of the torchbearers of early Polish horror and this turned out to be so... mediocre. I'm not saying it's poorly-made or acted. It's not. In fact, it has decent production values, period detail, make-up, costumes and performances plus a palpable chilly winter atmosphere and the occasional nicely framed shot or mildly eerie bit. The problem here is with the script and direction. The pacing is slow, it's talky and both the dialogue and underdeveloped characters (most especially the thoroughly unlikable protagonist) come off incredibly flat, leading to a mostly uninspiring, predictable film devoid of energy, suspense and surprise.

Another issue I had is that I could never quite figure out why so much time was being spent on the Polish liberation angle or how that all tied together with the horror / supernatural stuff. I guess it doesn't necessarily have to be tied together. It may very well just be incidental, not adequately established by the writer or director (this is an adaptation of a novel so perhaps some important stuff was left out) or is merely there to give this a veneer of respectability in what is otherwise a pretty generic ghost story. Either way, I found myself having a difficult time becoming involved in the plot and the people who populate it and I seriously doubt being more knowledgeable about 19th Century Polish history would make that much of a difference.

While this title never made it to the U. S. during the video era, it was distributed throughout Eastern Europe and in Russia. There were multiple VHS releases in Poland and releases in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary and other countries. Supposedly, two million Polish viewers (nearly 20 percent of the population back then) saw this in 1983, making it one of the biggest box office hits of the year in its home country. It was popular enough to spawn a 1990 sequel: Powrót wilczycy / "The Return of the Wolf" (or "The Return of the She-Wolf") which was made by the same director.

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