“CUB” (TIFF Movie Review)Movies/TV,News,Reviews Phil Brown
In his feature film debut, Belgian director Jonas Govaerts has delivered what can be described as a textbook horror film. It weaves together a vast swab of genre tropes into something pitched halfway between campfire yarn and 80s slasher. In this case, that’s not a bad thing.
CUB doesn’t play as a collection of clichés, but a love letter to the genre from a filmmaker who grew up wearing out FRIDAY THE 13TH and SLEEPAWAY CAMP tapes and wanted to see if he could “make one like they used to.” Well, he did. CUB doesn’t break new ground, but it sure delivers a perfectly solid gut punch from a new director.
[Minor spoilers follow]
The film opens with 12-year-old Sam (Maurice Luijten) heading off for a summer cub scout camping trip. The counselors include a nerdy nice guy, a bearded scumball with an attack dog, and the requisite pretty girl assigned to cooking duty. The other kids are all believably snot nosed troublemakers and by all accounts, it seems like everyone is sure to have a good time. Of course, that wouldn’t make for a horror film, so on the way to their campsite the counselors start telling tales of a werewolf in the woods in the hopes that it will keep the kids in their tents. Sam becomes fascinated with the idea and starts searching for the woodland monster.
Instead, he stumbles upon a feral child, wearing a disturbing wooden mask, who lives in an elaborate tree house. Sam makes reluctant friends with the creepy kiddie, bonding over a can of dog food. Unfortunately, that kid has a daddy in a more traditional slasher mode. Worse still, feral kiddo and psycho dad have a knack for setting up elaborate booby traps in the very woods where this peaceful camping trip was supposed to go down.
On the most basic level, CUB is a horror movie crafted from stock elements. It’s the execution that makes it feel like more. Jonas Govaerts knows exactly how to shoot an effective scare sequence, filming in scope aspect ratio with a constantly creeping camera peering into shadows around every corner. A synth score (from Steve Moore, of Zombi fame) completes the 80s/Carpenter aesthetic without feeling like anyone is being robbed. Govaerts accomplishes shock and suspense sequences with ease, doling out just enough gore to keep bloodthirsty viewers at bay without slipping into excess. He’s also got a ballsy willingness to break the two big Hollywood rules of keeping animals and children safe at all costs. CUB is a movie that establishes enough danger early on to make it clear that anyone or anything could die at any moment, and Govaerts has no problem pulling the trigger.
Govaerts’ threats carry weight, as well. The way he combines an arrow and a hornet’s nest is priceless, while CUB’s snarling, drooling, feral child is almost inexplicably creepy. Daddy, the slasher is a bit more conventional, but both are plenty ominous thanks to how little backstory the filmmaker provides. There’s just enough to understand what we’re dealing with, but never enough to understand why, and always in a way that feels enigmatic over underdeveloped.
CUB is a rock solid piece of genre entertainment presented bluntly and without irony in a singularly focused 85-minute sprint. It’s no masterpiece, but Govaerts delivers a brand of B-movie entertainment that often seems far easier to pull off than it actually is. Let’s hope it’s not long before he gets a chance to stretch with the next one.