The Horror Films of Janusz Majewski
Janusz Majewski is one of Poland’s most durable and prolific filmmakers. In a career that spans half a century Majewski has directed a variety of films, with comedies and period pieces predominating. He also made LOKIS, one of Poland’s most famous horror features, and a wealth of horror-themed shorts that comprise a significant body of work in their own right. In fact, I’d argue that Majewski can be counted as the foremost director of Polish horror movies (his only real competition in this regard are his fellow countrymen Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski and Andrzej Zulawski, all of whom have made the majority of their films outside Poland).
Majewski’s affinity for the scary stuff was
evident in his earliest work, such as the 1958 student short RONDO
(ROUNDABOUT). It features a man in a restaurant trying to get the
attention of a distracted waiter made up to resemble Charlie Chaplin (or
perhaps Adolph Hitler?). This entails playing a violin and firing a gun,
but all those things accomplish is scaring away the waiter, forcing the
protagonist to chase him through the wilderness. Eventually they make it
back to the restaurant, but things don’t go any better there, and result
in a bloody confrontation.
1960’s MOST (BRIDGE) provided the
first instance of Majewski’s evident passion for horror literature. It’s
an adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War-set classic “An Occurrence
at Owl Creek Bridge” that Majewski completed a full two years before
Robert Enrico’s better
known filming of the same story.
1962’s SZPITAL (HOSPITAL)
is set entirely in a claustrophobic hospital room where a male patient
is confined. Throughout the film the room is invaded by a variety of
strange people who at times even appear in bed with the guy. Another
peculiarity is the ever-present sound of a train whistle, an apparent
Holocaust reference that carries over into the increasingly macabre
final scenes, wherein the man is accosted by a indistinct figure and a
In 1964’s hour long AWATAR
(AVATAR) Majewski again adapted a famous text, this one an
by Theophile Gautier. The film has a light, rather comedic tone that
shows Majewski was fully aware of the ridiculousness of Gautier’s
premise, involving a lovesick bachelor and a married count who by the
machinations of a supernaturally endowed physician are made to switch
bodies--and discover that life in someone else’s skin isn’t much fun at
The 29-minute BLEKITNY POKOJ (THE
BLUE ROOM), from 1965, was based on a quasi-horror story from 1866 by
Prosper Merimee, who would provide the source material for two
subsequent Majewski shorts. It’s about a vacationing couple who meet an
eccentric Englishman on a train; arriving at their hotel the couple, to
their understandable annoyance, find the Englishman checking into the
room next to theirs.
1968’s 28-minute DOCENT H.
(ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR H.) is more science fiction than horror, but
nonetheless contains its share of shivery elements. The title character
is a professor looking to replace humans with cyborgs. His supremely
creepy assistant Traumer, strikingly played by Majewski regular Andrzej
Rausz, is one such creation. Professor H. intends to transpose Traumer’s
brain with that of a renowned scientist, but is in for a surprise.
PIERWSZY PAWILION (FIRST PAVILION), also
from 1968, is similarly heavy on the science fiction, with a renowned
college professor lured from his home one night by the promise of a
scientific breakthrough. He winds up in the factory of a mad scientist
who has a stable of people he’s shrunk down to thimble size. The
shrinking occurs in a claustrophobic shower that emits radiation in
place of water (a holocaust reference?), a contraption in which the
hapless professor is eventually enclosed.
In 1969’s WENUS Z ILLE (VENUS
D’ILLE) Majewski returned to the work of Prosper Merimee,
specifically his 1835 story “Venus d’Ille,” about an accursed statue (a
story that was subsequently
filmed by Mario and Lamberto Bava in 1979).
Said statue, fashioned in the guise of an anguished woman, is seen in a
remote inn, having been recently interred from the ground. The occasion
is a wedding attended by the protagonist, an unassuming man who becomes
caught up in a bizarre nightmare when the groom unthinkingly sticks his
wedding ring on a finger of the statue--and can’t get it off!
On to 1970’s aforementioned LOKIS.
REKOPIS PROFESORA WITTEMBACHA (LOKIS: THE MAUSCRIPT OF PROFESSOR
WITTEMBACHA). Based once again on a tale by Prosper Merimee, it concerns
a young aristocrat who’s a were-bear. Of course it takes the
protagonist, a scholarly minister staying at the bear-man’s country
mansion, the entire movie to figure this out. In common with the Merimee
story the accent is on atmosphere rather than incident, with an
overpowering sense of brooding mystery that builds to a deeply chilling
climax. The film is very old school, in short, which is a large part of
The 26 minute OKNO ZABITE DESKAMI
(THE BOARDED WINDOW) from 1971 was Majewski’s second color production.
Its basis was the 1891 Ambrose Bierce story about a man and woman
residing in a dense forest whose lives undergo a most unsettling
It was back to black and white for the 26
minute MARKHEIM (1971), one of Majewski’s most effective shorts.
Based on an 1884 story by Robert Louis Stevenson, it pivots on a strong
performance by Jerzy Kamas, playing a heel named Markheim who
impulsively kills an elderly antique dealer during an attempted robbery.
From there Markheim’s sense of reality steadily dissolves in a morass of
guilt and shame, until a spectral dog leads him to a shadowy figure who
seems to know an awful lot about Markheim and his problems--a fact that,
once the figure’s identity is finally revealed, makes a lot of sense.
The final film on our list is SYSTEM
from 1972, the arguable apotheosis of Majewski’s work in the horror
field. It’s an alternately restrained and outrageous adaptation of Edgar
Allen Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” that like OKNO
ZABITE DESKAMI before it was updated to the modern world.
Now in his eighties, it’s highly unlikely that Janusz Majewski will make any more horror films--or, frankly, any more films period (his last directing credit was in 2010). Yet I’d say MOST, LOKIS, OKNO ZABITE DESKAMI, MARKHEIM and SYSTEM are achievement enough, and more than solidify Majewski’s place in the horror lexicon. If you haven’t seen them that’s something you simply must remedy ASAP!