Barbara Liberek stars in Polish horror fantasy series "Cracow Monsters".

Creepy Fantasy Delight — “Cracow Monsters”

“Cracow Monsters” boasts that rare sense of pairing the macabre to the magical. As dreary, rainy, cold, and weirdly flaking as the Polish city of Cracow is in the series, it’s also a place where the colors are rich, the shadows inky deep, and the sense of mystery in the world still feels like a promise. It seems like a funny thing to say about a horror show when the genre’s become decidedly bleaker, but it’s that sense of a world that holds mysterious promise that makes this new Polish series such an involving watch.

Barbara Liberek plays Alex, a medical student who’s recruited by an inscrutable professor into a strange band of supernatural investigators. She’s their ninth, which holds a significance she doesn’t understand immediately. You could say they each have a very precise power, but in some cases ‘curse’ might be the more appropriate word. They research and autopsy creatures and demons out of Slavic folklore.

The list of horror projects “Cracow Monsters” evokes feels beautifully selected. The aesthetic richly calls back to “Jacob’s Ladder”, “The X-Files”, “Flatliners”, “Dark City”, “The Thing”, the “Silent Hill” series, and the Prague horror boom of the 2000s. That city was a favorite shooting location for Guillermo Del Toro, used in “Blade 2” and “Hellboy”, and Eli Roth, used in the “Hostel” series (meh). Like Prague, Cracow boasts an Old Town district with buildings, cobblestone streets, and fortifications that are hundreds of years old.

(A quick note: Cracow is the anglicization of Krakow, pronounced ‘krakuf’. The series translation uses “Cracow”, so I’m using the C-version to avoid confusion.)

It’s hard to envision that “Cracow Monsters” wasn’t informed at some level by Andrzej Sapkowski’s “The Witcher” novels (and of course the subsequent games and series). I’m sure there’s also a ton of foundation in other Polish fiction and folklore here that I don’t recognize.

“Cracow Monsters” takes its time delving into its horror aspects. It wants you to learn about Alex first. She’s a diagnosed schizophrenic who sees visions and self-medicates with drinking, drugs, and sex. She’s a student with good marks, but she’s also at the age where symptoms of schizophrenia like hallucinations become stronger. Of course, we’re clued in early that she may not be schizophrenic. What she sees as hallucinations may be visions.

The series’ action scenes don’t follow this slow-burn approach. They explode with sudden and undeniable strangeness. There’s a beautiful sense of motion to the cinematography throughout. Even quiet scenes feature the camera investigating multiple characters’ moods and faces so that we can draw our own inferences. It allows “Cracow Monsters” to subtly foreshadow details, and builds our curiosity for who everyone is.

Directors Kasia Adamik and Olga Chajdas also love to sneak in continuous takes that start on a precisely edited action. This fuses continuity to motion in ways that are superbly focused on character. When this sense of motion meets the staging of its action, “Cracow Monsters” sings. One desperate chase scene in a building made my jaw drop as I thought, this is what every zombie movie misses. The terror is the loping undead, sure, but even worse is figuring your way through the winding hallways of an unfamiliar building, hoping to avoid running yourself into a dead end. As Alex runs in a desperate circle of hallways in one continuous shot, it becomes apparent the only thing more frightening than being caught is screwing up and catching yourself.

One other choice I love in “Cracow Monsters” is its reliance on live special effects over CGI visual effects. There’s an abundance of heavily CGI monsters in horror right now. They come straight out of comic books, digital comics, manga, and other drawn sources, so they don’t always have to sync up with what looks real. As Karina Adelgaard points out on Heaven of Horror, it’s what allows a series like South Korea’s “Hellbound” to go over the top in its visuals. When series-budgeted CGI doesn’t have to look realistic, you can go for volume over fidelity.

That opens up a lot of new doors, but I don’t want the old ones closed. I tend to prefer live special effects, and “Cracow Monsters” does a lot with its creatures, makeup effects, and staging. The CGI it does use is rare and well utilized. If I have one complaint it’s that it can lack a little weight in its movement, but when used for a singular monster here or there, you’re not really comparing it to other things. The way it’s folded in is so creative, strange, and sudden that I’m already sold on what it wants to show me.

The acting here is solid, and aided by that sense of continuous motion in the filmmaking. A few scenes center on simultaneous conversations weaving in and out of each other. Alex’s group features eight others who are already used to living together, so this is natural. That can be difficult to track in a translation, but the filmmaking makes it easy to follow. It adds to Alex’s sense of being overwhelmed, and it provides a foundational layer of realism that a horror fantasy like this has to establish first.

On a cultural note, Alex is openly bi, and she’s seen kissing women as well as men. The cast of mostly young characters are perfectly comfortable with this, treat it as normal, and don’t assume anyone’s sexuality. An early shot shows Alex taking birth control. This is all meaningful to see given Poland’s governmental and religious situation, in which an increasingly theocratic Catholic government has established “LGBT-free zones” that occupy a third of the country. Their stated goal is banning public displays like marches and events. As if that’s not bad enough, the unstated yet understood goal is the enabling of harassment and violence against LGBTQ+ people. The Archbishop of Cracow himself has railed against what he calls a “plague” of LGBT ideology for years. This has served as just one example for recent hateful legislation pursued in the U.S. by evangelical state governments in Florida, Texas, and numerous other states. The series embracing LGBTQ+ representation and pro-choice stances is important both there and here.

“Cracow Monsters” isn’t perfect. I have a quibble or two. There’s a photosensitivity warning on the first episode because the opening scene absolutely needs it. That one scene is doused in an aggravating amount of flashing lights and while it’s well done, I do think artists in general need to think twice before using this visual approach. I don’t have photosensitivity triggers, and watching in a dark room, I had to consistently shield parts of the screen throughout the scene. I can’t remember doing that with anything else. You might need to watch the very first scene with the lights on, and if you do have photosensitivity triggers, be extremely cautious with it. After that first scene, the effect doesn’t return, and you can turn the lights off to enjoy the rest of the series.

A few scene transitions early on can feel unintentionally sudden, but once “Cracow Monsters” has set its different story branches into motion, it finds a good rhythm.

I do feel like some precision in the dialogue is lost in translation here or there. It’s nothing that’s distracting, but you may notice it once or twice. The series does an impressive job with its visual storytelling, especially when it doesn’t want you to immediately know what’s happening, so you never feel lost from the storyteller. I just wonder if some occasional connection in the dialogue or a more poetic turn of phrase may’ve been dropped here or there.

I don’t know that “Cracow Monsters” will appeal to everybody. It recalls 90s and early 00s psychological and supernatural horror, and those are genres that have a lot of misses and half-successes. The storytelling is defined through a sumptuously cinematic atmosphere, with tone becoming more important at times than the characters themselves. The editing shifts more traditionally between deep areas of focus that feature extravagant location shooting and set design, and close-up moments for the performance in dialogue scenes. This can feel stodgy or “of-an-era” in some projects, but the sheer quality of those locations and sets, the complexity of the staging, and the camera’s sense of movement elevates “Cracow Monsters” into finding that genuinely cinematic feel.

This all stands in stark contrast to more recent horror branches: art horror’s unnerving brightness and actor-centered focus; retrowave (or vaporwave) horror’s neon-and-shadow evocations of a style that never was; and pop horror’s preference for the bleak, washed out, and heavily foregrounded.

These are all different ways of presenting horror, and it’s awesome we have so many popular ways of conveying “why am I making myself watch this” right now. Some of these can miss that dark sense of promise, though – that horror can ultimately be an attempt at greater understanding, and that there’s beauty within this even if it scares us. This lends a vitality to the storytelling. It creates a connection to the storyteller and how the story’s being told that can even supersede the story itself. There’s a sense of sharing the excitement for a certain atmosphere and aesthetic rather than being told it or presented it.

For example: in a bleak horror backgrounded by shadows, I’m often terrified for the character because I can’t see what’s behind them. Here, there’s time to gaze more deeply into every scene. I can see where the paint is flaking, where the tile changes, what the light suggests, I can see everything behind them and be deeply excited to be in that moment alongside them. There is a trade-off – it’s scary instead of terrifying. You’re not going to find the most intense horror here, and that can make things feel a little too funhouse for some viewers. For others, that depth of texture becomes a sort of worldbuilding through tone that feels excitingly participatory in nature.

They’re different kinds of horror. Some like both, some only one or the other. Which kind you like will tell you whether you can get invested and excited for “Cracow Monsters” or if you want something less consciously cinematic in nature. “Cracow Monsters” won’t convince you to like a kind of horror aesthetic you don’t, but if this kind of horror fantasy is a style you’re already into, it’s a very strong entry.

You can watch “Cracow Monsters” on Netflix. All eight episodes are available immediately.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

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