As Poland’s first proper horror storms to No1 on Netflix, TFN talks to director Bartosz M. Kowalski about his ode to the B-films he grew up with
Billed as Poland’s first slasher film, W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight) has found itself storming Netflix after its original cinematic premier last month was canned after shutdown measures were introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Initially scheduled to debut on, you’ve guessed it, Friday 13th, Bartosz M. Kowalski’s movie instead found itself switched to the Netflix platform where it immediately shot to No. 1 in Poland, a position it maintained for six days following its delayed release.
Met to largely enthusiastic media reviews, it’s since been singled out in some quarters as heralding a breakthrough for Polish film.
“It’s always bothered me that I was never able to watch a Polish horror when I was growing up,” Kowalski tells TFN, “and that’s because they simply didn’t exist. I never understood that. In fact, I never really got why, despite our huge cinematic tradition, we seemed to have fewer genres than other countries.
“Look at Spain,” he continues, “they’ve got a freakin’ huge horror scene. Why can’t we? Over the best part of sixty years we’ve produced maybe five horrors in all, which is totally ridiculous. Sure we’ve had films with elements of horror, but never really any pure horror. We’ve tended to shut the door on the genre in this country, so I hope that this film opens it a little for other filmmakers.”
Largely shot in the forests of Kampinos, the flick follows a group of tech-addicted teens as they enter an ‘offline camp’ designed to break their dependence on smart devices – this, though, is just the start of a nightmare that sees them pursued by a hideously deformed killer that prowls the woods seeking out his prey.
Gut-sploshing adventures follow as the group – a tubby nerd, a hunky, overly-confident jock, a demure, bereaved heroine, a flirty bimbo and a softly-spoken shy guy – finds its members picked off one-by-one by their psychotic, grunting stalker.
If the plot sounds familiar, then so it should with Kowalski himself describing it as his own personal ode to the B-films he loves.
“I grew up watching these kinds of movies on VHS,” he says, “secretly renting them from stores when I was ten or eleven. Maniac Cop must have been the first one I watched, and while it’s certainly not the greatest film ever made, it left a huge impression.”
It was the beginning of a lifelong fixation with the horror genre.
“After they found out, my parents soon accepted this strange fascination of mine and from about the age of 12 or 13 I basically watched everything there was to see in this given category. I don’t know why or how, but there’s something I just really love about these films – in many ways, there’s a real purity to them: they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are. They’re not Oscar-winning works with a messianic message, but they deliver everything that you expect.”
Already well-regarded for his bold film Playground (a controversial work based on the murder of English toddler Jamie Bulger), the progression to horror was a marked deviation from the 35-year-old’s portfolio, but an organic transition for someone who grew up attracted to the slightly darker side of life. “As a kid,” he laughs, “I always preferred Skeletor over He-Man!”
But whilst the idea for a slasher had been germinating in his head since the age of 13, it was only recently that Kowalski found “the planets aligning” to hand him the opportunity to direct such a movie.
“Ever since returning to Poland from my film studies,” he says, “I’ve been going from producer to producer trying to get slasher projects off the ground but up until now it never worked out. But is this the realization of a dream? Yes and no. It’s a good step, but it hasn’t been a realization simply because there were so many limits in place: on the budget, on the scope of experimentation, etc.
“And it wasn’t just an experiment for me, but also for the producers and investors; seeing this genre was non-existent in Poland, there had never been a standard set before in terms of financing.”
With the film going straight to Netflix due to the coronavirus, finding this benchmark has remained elusive. “We really wanted to see out how many people would go to the cinema to watch it, but despite it being a huge success online we’re still no closer to answering this original question.”
“Further,” adds Kowalski, “every filmmaker in the world wants to see his films on a huge screen with great sound and people flocking to watch, but I guess we live in different times – after all, there’s some people that watch films on their phone.”
Nonetheless, whilst the disappointment of a cancelled cinema run is visibly raw, its transfer to Netflix has had the benefit of exposing the film to an entirely new audience and, in itself, helped foster a hype that has come largely as a surprise.
“I never thought it would be this popular, nor as controversial,” says Kowalski. “As it is, reactions have gone from A to Z and while the majority of the film media have backed it strongly, there’s also a lot of hate – some people want to see it burned at the stake!
“Some have said it’s too violent and too graphic, others that it’s more funny than it is scary. But you know what, that’s how it’s meant to be! It’s a slasher film and by their very nature they’re not intended to scare the pants off viewers – they’re fun and entertaining as opposed to frightening and traumatic.”
In this, perhaps, Kowalski himself is guilty of understating the impact that the film has made. Beyond all the over-the-top butchery, mayhem, beheading and blood lies a well-paced movie that is beautifully shot, often amusing, tight in its dialogue and complimented by a dreamy, distanced soundtrack that proves hauntingly hypnotic.
Featuring a star turn by Instagram sensation Julia Wieniawa, weak links in the cast are impossible to find, a point driven home by quirky cameos provided by a creepy priest, a pair of sieg heiling patriots and a set of oddball twins. Together, this sum of parts conspire to present an entertaining romp that follows in the best B film traditions. The big question it’s left hanging, though, is will more follow?
“Right now,” says Kowalski, “I’m preparing for shooting a film in November, but it’s not even close to a slasher. But I’d definitely like to do another – something that goes a step further and plays around with the style a little more. Honestly though, it’s not really up to me – in this profession you always need a Plan B, C, D and E because you never know what will turn out. We’ll wait and see!”
W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt is available on Netflix Polska and will be rolled out to global members of Netflix over the course of the year in its subtitled version(s).