By Kamil Babiarz
In general, Polish cinema is not well-known for its horrors, and there are not so many examples in this country from the 20th and 21st century. Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight is a strong title for a slasher-horror film, and the film is an interesting experiment in Polish cinema, though it cannot hide from its comparisons to foreign films such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in terms of narrative tropes, violent sequences and the construction. The director Kowalski nevertheless makes a well-crafted piece with occasional corny humor.
The story of the film revolves around an offline camp site, where teenagers are learning to live without their smartphones. The very start of the film provides a setup for the rest of the film, with a postman who gets attacked by an unknown creature, and whose fate we as audiences don’t know about until the second half of the film. The character is key, as he provides expository elements about the mystery in the woods, yet with a sense of dread, that is quite fine, albeit can significantly be familiar for some moviegoers.
There is even a character who references films like Terminator 2, and An American Werewolf in London and talks about the typical conventions of the horror cinema, that with the film’s structure are inevitable to happen, but makes the character poignantly funny and is kind of an icebreaker between the characters and audiences, because there is a character who is self-aware and has in mind the typical standards of slasher films. But arguably this does not hurt the appeal of the film. Just like its other serious elements that are quickly downplayed, in favour of the gore aspects.
This is because the film itself tries at times to point out a bit of the social themes that are current in Poland, because we have a gay character who opens up about his experience to one of the girls at the camp, and also there is a priest whose use of the phrase “plague” towards the gay man may evoke distrust towards certain figures in the Church, though some may find this stereotypical. These elements should nonetheless be treated with a pinch of salt because the film is more focused on the implementation of the foreign cliches for a workable story that does not defy expectations in its bloodlust for the body count. This body count unsurprisingly rises, and deaths themselves are executed quite nicely, and at times, creatively, even though they are aimed at likeable characters.
Director Kowalski plays around with the conventions quite well, as he mixes gory sequences with some of the sexual ones (hence, who has sex in a slasher film risks ending up dead, is a typical convention) and adds a little dash of humor and spritz of sex along the way, to provide a satisfying experience. The structure in its narrative makes it a good watch with some catchy and gory sequences.
The differences of characters are also particularly embedded within the genre. For example, Zosia is more of an outsider, who is shy, and has gone through a dramatic family experience, works well as a good contrast to the blonde girl, intended as a sexually attractive female Aniela. Zosia finds herself in the offline camp with hardly any problem, and her narrative arc is interestingly shown with her exposition, as she is a witness of a tragedy from a past, which increases the sense of drama and her inner rivalry throughout the course of the film. But there are also characters like a funny camp manager, a protective female guardian of the group, and more flamboyant characters like muscly Daniel. Generally, it is a wide range that should generate an appeal with different audiences.
Look out for conventional yet well-structured tropes like the final girl (like in Friday the 13th), or the evil twins tropes is particularly interesting especially with the retrospections from the forgotten past. Arguably, the “turning” into murderous, disfigured mutants is interesting in terms of its backstory that is provided, and gives a nice explanation to the mutants’ activity, in the woodlands like in the, Wrong Turn series (the scenery resembles Western gore, or the 80s type of films such as Friday the 13th with the orchestration of creative and brutal kills). The film could be better at times, as it is formulaic in terms of its narrative structure, but it is a slasher that rightfully stands as effective, and possibly all of the effort within is more effective rather than original.
Potentially Kowalski’s film could have worked out a little better, if it was more exuberant with its horror-comedy elements, rather than just a slasher-horror that provides gory and brutal elements with mutants being menacing and threatening towards the teens, and an eerie woodland atmosphere with old, abandoned, dirty houses. Nevertheless Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight should be recommended as an enjoyable, over-the-top and full of ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ kitsch.
The ending of the film is murky and suggestively opens up space for a sequel, that could be better than the original, as there is some potential in this story. Poland did not have as much to show so far in terms of the horrors, and especially slashers which are quite new as a subgenre in this country. Therefore, Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight should be seen as ideally a fitting start to this cinematic exploration.