Inspired by one of the world’s youngest serial killers, the genre-bending Polish thriller “The Red Spider” spins a web that openly challenges pro-forma slasher pics in which corpses accumulate while a detective races to solve the case. For starters, its stone-faced antihero doesn’t actually kill a single person — at least not directly. But even more peculiar, writer-director Marcin Koszalka wants his audience to identify with the criminal in question, inviting us to consider the impulses that might turn an “ordinary” person into a homicidal sociopath. Grounded not in psychology but in a form of hypothetical speculation, the resulting film feels as cold and obsessive as its subject, suggesting an arty, “Let the Right One in”-like tale of diabolical initiation, with obvious interest for fests and jaded genre buffs.
Coincidentally, at least in light of that comparison, “the Vampire” was the nickname Polish press gave teenage serial killer Karol Kot, who serves as the clear model for the film’s budding criminal mastermind, 19-year-old Karol Kremer (played by the mannequin-like Filip Plawiak, a pretty face behind which hardly a pulse registers). Meanwhile, the film takes its predatory title from Poland’s most notorious murderer, Lucian Staniak, aka the Red Spider, so named because he sent letters written in his own blood to the police after each strike. Or so the legend went for years, only to be debunked recently when Staniak was revealed not to exist (according to the film’s press notes, though his reputation endures online).
By apocryphal accounts, both Kot and Staniak undertook their killing sprees during the mid-1960s, while Poland was still under communist control, which is how Koszalka landed on the film’s period setting. Evoking Krakow at the time, the helmer reveals a haunted and paranoid world in which citizens are already suspicious of their neighbors even without the news of a murderer wandering free among them. Much of the film takes place in the silken darkness of night, and in the exceptions where daylight is permitted, Karol is nearly always seen lurking in the shadows — either that or stripped down to his skimpy black swimsuit, a model physical specimen whose outward appearance masks the churning conflict within.
As long as there have been serial killers, there have been neighbors and family members to attest that the suspects in question seemed like friendly, well-adjusted people. To those around him, Karol comes across as a successful and upwardly mobile young man: He’s Krakow’s most successful competitive diver, a medical student set to follow in his father’s footsteps, handsome and potentially eligible for some lucky lady to marry. But Staniak reveals something to be off from the outset. At a local carnival, Karol marvels at a stunt motorcyclist, admiring the fact the daredevil doesn’t flinch in the face of death.
Later that same night, he happens to discover the corpse of a boy discarded behind one of the carnival trailers. Instead of reporting what he sees, Karol is filled with curiosity. Though the Krakow police have made no progress in apprehending the so-called “Red Spider,” Karol easily identifies the man he believes to be responsible for the boy’s death. Like a communist secret-service operative, he stealthily follows the stranger (Adam Woronowicz), who works as a veterinarian, and even goes so far as to poison the family dog in order to create an excuse to meet the man. Audiences must really reach in order to guess what’s going through his mind at any point, especially where his courtship of a sexy newspaper photographer (Julia Kijowska) is concerned.
As puppetmaster, Koszalka demonstrates an elegant and confident touch, operating as much as possible in the “pure cinema” tradition, where strong visual scenes are allowed to unfold without the crutch of explanatory dialogue or helpful audio clues, beyond a few snatches of radio broadcasts and a low, dread-building score. Still, Karol’s behavior is so far removed from what an ordinary person might do under the same circumstances, it can be a challenge to interpret what exactly the character is doing — or why — at any given moment. His choices aren’t based in logic, but a sense of “what if”: What if you met a serial killer? What if, instead of trying to stop him, you opted to become an accomplice?
These questions emerge from a career-long fascination with mortality and its concomitant anxieties, which Koszalka — a gifted cinematographer and documentary helmer — has previously explored exclusively through nonfiction work, including “User-Friendly Death,” which profiles employees of a Czech crematorium, and “The Existence,” about a Polish actor who leaves his organs to a medical school in anticipation of his own demise. In Karol, he presents an unusually young character to be so overtaken by such obsessions, and the police inspector (Wojciech Zielinski) is right to be baffled. Of course, nearly all slasher-movie audiences share some of the same macabre curiosity, but not to this degree: It’s as if Karol wants to prove that he’s not afraid of death, first by exposing himself directly to the Red Spider and later by actually taking credit for the crimes, knowing full well that the gallows await the man responsible for these horrific murders.
It’s virtually impossible to accept Karol as anything more than a construct of Koszalka’s overactive imagination, and as such, we’re left to speculate about the director’s own impulses. Though the movie encourages identification, it entirely lacks the humanistic dimension of empathy, making a murder that Karol arranges virtually impossible to watch, even though the violence occurs offscreen. Afterward, both Karol and the film’s camera take time to study the killer’s gruesome handiwork with a fixed, emotionless gaze. Such ice-cold ambivalence is easily the scariest thing in a narrative debut that heralds the arrival of an intriguing new voice with an unnerving potential to disturb.