Fantastic Fest Review: 'Cub' an Envelope-Pushing Horror Fan's Dream
by Jeremy Kirk
September 19, 2014
We may have a winner for this year's foreign-language, horror film that's allowed to push the envelope in all the right ways. Cub (or Welp in its native country of Belgium) comes to us from first-time feature director Jonas Govaerts, who has crafted a canny yet unsettling slasher film for a whole new wave of horror fans. Disturbing from the outset, Cub delves deep into the human psyche, satisfactorily delivering violent and sexual tropes you might expect. It all gets splashed with a fresh coat of paint courtesy of some extremely atmospheric tone and a no-nonsense attitude in its vividness. Put succinctly, it's not for the casual camper.
You see, Govaerts' film pits a group of unwitting adventurers against something dangerous, sadistic in the woods, but any comparisons to the classic Friday the 13th series ends at "slasher film in the woods." These particular wanderers are pre-teen Scouts, taken into the woods by their three, "adult" troop leaders. Little do any of them know that the local urban legend of Kai, a boy who lives in the woods and becomes a blood-thirsty werewolf at night, is more based in reality than they could ever imagine. It isn't long before they're trapped in those woods and being stalked by something very real.
Govaerts, who co-wrote the screenplay with Roel Mondelaers, accomplishes so much with his slasher film, giving the story plenty of room to gestate while still giving us moments of horror and terror in equal amounts. The scares come early and often, Govaerts' vicious masked killer staying in the shadows for about the first two shots of the film. The director has no qualms in showing us that it's a child hunting people through these woods, but the real mystery, the real heart of Cub is not in who's doing the killing but what makes one become such an animalistic creature.
To that end, Cub shockingly aims for similar subtext as Kevin Smith's Tusk, the heart of a man and what drives one to be like a vicious animal. Again, the similarities end there, as, where Tusk's goal is goofy stoner comedy, Cub is a different beast altogether. This one goes for the jugular, and the lock it has on its focus makes the violence all the more palpable. That much of the violence here involves children only adds to the discomfort that comes from watching it.
Like the great envelope-pushers before it, though, Cub handily offers a justification for its disturbing nature. If the idea of children in peril and coming to physical harm bothers you, an extended scene depicting animal cruelty may have you heading straight for the exit door. Knowing it's there may even keep you sitting down to watch Cub in the first place, but this scene, too, has its place in the film. What it's saying speaks true to the film's characters and situation. During that scene you're heart may find itself breaking just a little, and, believe it or not, it may not be for the animal being abused.
Reigning in any semblance of B-grade schlock is the combined efforts of all of Cub's cast. Sure, the troop leaders are dimensionally flat. There are too few of them for Govaerts to spread the wide range of classic slasher tropes between them, but he makes due. The child actors, however, are on a whole other level of impressiveness. Chief among them is Maurice Luijten who plays the 12-year-old Sam, something of an outcast in the troop and one who hides his own darkness inside. The young actor brings a sincerity to the part that's rarely found in child performers, his sincerity elevating every scene in which he's present.
The other child characters are a little wooden, pawns in the whole nightmarish scenario that don't add much but body count. The same goes for a few locals who somehow never found their way this deep in the woods. Cub meanders a bit through those woods, charging deliberately yet methodically towards its tension-filled finale. Govaerts' love letter to the slasher films of old bleeds through on occasion, the good-and-bad of the sub-genre coming through. Fortunately, when all is said and done, Cub unhinges any safety one might feel from the been-there-done-that attitude slasher films have picked up recently. It gives us something fresh, something we likely will never want to see again, but we're happy to recognize a film that advances the genre and pushes that envelope like this. If only they could pull off such tricks in American films.
Jeremy's Fantastic Fest Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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