Director – Bartosz M. Kowalski, Screenplay – Bartosz M. Kowalski & Mirella Zaradkiewicz, Producer – Jan Kwiecinski, Photography – Cezary Stolecki, Music – Carl-Johan Sevedag, Visual Effects Supervisor – Waldemar Wozniak, Special Effects – Coloroffron, Makeup Effects – Redo FX, Production Design – Lukasz Trzcinski. Production Company – Akson Studio.
Piotr Zurawski (Marek), Olaf Lubaszenko (Pastor Andrzej), Sebastian Stankiewicz (Brother Piotr), Lech Dyblik (Brother Antoni), Rafal Iwaniuk (Brother Dawid)
1987. Marek becomes a novice monk at a monastery in remote Poland that specialises in exorcism. In reality, he is a militia officer who has come to investigate reports of women that have gone missing after being brought there. As Marek begins his investigation, he discovers that Pastor Andrzej has been faking the exorcisms with crude special effects. However, his identity is revealed and he is imprisoned. He then discovers that the monks are seeking to conduct a ritual that will raise their Chosen One – and that they believe that he is the one.
The title Hellhole does nothing to inspire you but this is a fierce and rather good horror film that is well worth your time. The title had previously been used by the Filipino exploitation film Hell Hole (1978), Hellhole (1985) about a woman imprisoned in a mental asylum and Hellhole Woman (aka Sadomania) (1981), a Women in Prison film from prolific exploitation director Jess Franco.
I have said on a number of occasions before that the Possession and Exorcism genre that was started by The Exorcist (1973) is one that is feeling utterly played out of original moves after constantly being recycled with minimal variation for fifty years. That said, Hellhole immediately causes you to pay attention. Piotr Zurawski plays the novice monk who arrives at a remote sanatorium that has been set up to deal with cases of possession. Immediately after he signs in, we see him open his suitcase and pull out a secret compartment that hides a gun. Not long after, he confesses to another priest that he is a militia investigator come to look into reports of missing girls. We then see him poking around the pastor’s office and uncovering evidence that the exorcism he witnessed earlier – during which the pastor’ crucifix burst into flames – was fabricated with special effects. This is something that spins the whole possession and exorcism film on its head in highly intriguing ways.
It all comes with ominous warnings – “This is not a normal monastery.” Not to mention elements of the grotesque – like where Piotr Zurawski finds the meals being served are a blood red liquid and have unidentified bones in them. Or where he delves into a festering hole in the wall and produced an eyeball on a stalk. Director Bartosz M. Kowalski adopts a sombre visual tone that renders much of the film in grey half-light. A giant statue of the crucified Jesus looms over the chapel with ominous effect, while bodies are seen being buried in the courtyard that is dominated by the stark black skeleton of a tree. At the same time, there is an air of suspicion where the pastor seems to be trying to trip Piotr up and his mission risks being exposed.
One of the pleasures of the film is that just when you think you know where it is going, it twists in another direction altogether. The police investigation gets thrown on its head as Piotr is exposed and imprisoned. Here we realise that we are in the midst of the basic plot of The Wicker Man (1973) – where a law enforcement officer has been lured to the monastery/island in search of missing girl(s) and that this has all been an elaborate set-up to get him there for the purpose of being a chosen sacrifice.
I should probably be adding a PLOT SPOILERS warning at this point. The next twist comes when the ceremony to raise the demon is conducted – only for nothing to happen and the monks to shrug and give up in disappointment and Piotr’s body is dumped down the well. The shock that then comes is when Piotr abruptly reappears, emerging as a giant horned demon figure, levitating all the monks in the church and turning them upside down, just like the inverted crucifixes we have seen throughout.
Bartosz M. Kowalski had previously directed Playground (2016) about disturbed school happenings and then had success with the slasher film Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight (2020) and its sequel Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight 2 (2021).