A group of scouts venture into the countryside in search of adventure and find a much more real and visceral threat stalking the woods than scary campfire tales.
It is curious how certain ideas bubble up in the culture in different places. Nick Cutter’s 2014 horror novel The Troop (my review here) and Flemish horror film Cub (also from 2014, it has been on the festival rounds) both feature groups of Scouts being terrorised in remote settings. Both works are also conscious throwbacks to earlier types of horror that have fallen out of favour. The Troop aims to resurrect the sort of bloody pulp literary horror popular in the late seventies and early eighties, and Cub has similarities with the horror movies of the same period. The two works have little else in common, but could cub scout survival horror be the next trend?
Director Jonas Govaerts’ Flemish film (originally titled Welp in Dutch) initially promises to be a dark fairy tale. An opening stalking sequence finds a blood streaked woman pursued through the forest by what appears to be some kind of wood sprite. Following this Cub sets up its main narrative. We meet Sam (Maurice Luijten), a 12 year old boy with a troubled background as he joins his scout troupe and their two young scoutmasters Kris (Titus De Voogdt) and Peter (Stef Aerts) for a team building adventure holiday camping in a forest. Along the journey the pick up Jasmijn (Evelien Bosmans) a female Venture Scout who is to act as the camp cook, and who has attracted the interest of the more reckless of the scoutmasters.
A field has been booked as a campsite, but on arrival they find it being ploughed up by the wheels of a go-cart by some loutish locals. Thinking of the boys in his care, and wanting to avoid further confrontation Kris and Peter decide to travel a bit further into the woods.
Things start to go wrong almost immediately. Kris has decided to thrill the boys with a scary tale about ‘Kai’ a werewolf who stalks the woods. But when Sam spots a mysterious childlike figure in the woods, and finds an enormous bird’s nest of a tree-house in the forest canopy he believes the tale is real. On the first night items are stolen from the campsite: a spare flashlight; some food for Peter’s bull terrier; a Playboy smuggled into camp by another boy. Already an outsider in the group, and because of his fertile imagination, suspicion falls on Sam. But while the figure in the woods may not be Kai, there is definitely something stalking the boys, and indeed anyone who dares set foot in the forest.
Cub is not a film that suffers from an unevenness of tone so much as a very nasty fracture of tone. This is clearly deliberate on the part of Govaerts and co-screenwriter Roel Mondelaers. The first half of the film sets up an interesting series of character dynamics with the more responsible and considerate Kris trying to keep his somewhat irresponsible friend Peter in check (and to encourage him to keep his dick in his pants around Jasmijn).
From the beginning the film is laced with in-jokes and nods to horror classics: the Scouts’ truck drives through a deserted Flemish town called Cassellroque; a character is named Franju; and so on. This, and the ribald and realistic humour of the adolescent scouts suggests a film with a lighter tone, albeit one with a streak of dark comedy and violence. The setting and group dynamics are reminiscent of a tweenie Dog Soldiers or undervalued slasher comedy Severance.
However, once the situation begins to spiral out of control – and boy, does it escalate quickly – the film reveals true colours of arterial crimson. This is the sort of film that once would have come in a puffy VHS case with a lurid cover put out by a company like Vipco or Intervision. The elegant poster suggests a film aiming for a Guillermo Del Toro tone, but in fact the movie is closer to the backwoods massacre sub-set of the slasher horror sub-genre. The villain’s underground lair borrows aesthetically from the later ‘torture porn’ cycle and the more B-movie inflicted examples of New French Extremism (in particular Frontier(s)).
There is a clear reference to Lucio Fulci with one nasty death but Cub is mostly nasty by implication. Fulci’s gore films were relentless with their graphic imagery. Scenes of violence were often lingering and protracted, happening with hideous slowness, never cutting away at the point of abjection. The most notorious example of this is probably the splinter in the eye scene from Zombie Flesh Eaters in which a large wood splinter and a soft human eye some into contact at an agonisingly slow pace that is designed to punish the audience as much as the victim onscreen. Cub has no scenes of this intensity, instead the violence is just off-screen or somehow obscured, and the grisly aftermath is rarely shown.
Which is not to say the film is not disturbing, Govaerts has clearly taken notes on how to shock with implied violence from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There are several scenes which seem designed to push buttons, this is not a film where characters are safe because they are children. Trigger warning for animal lovers, there is a scene of extended cruelty to an animal that while clearly movie magic, may upset.
The problems with Cub begin when it makes the sudden gear shift, putting pedal to metal, and racing down the serious horror highway. While Govaerts’ commitment to making a full fat horror movie is commendable, he allows visceral action to overwhelm his narrative. The reasonable character work of the first half of the film quickly goes out the window.
Apart from Sam, the scouts receive little characterisation and thus there is little reason to care much about their fates. There is a storyline developed with a couple of ‘alpha’ kids bullying Sam but this really doesn’t develop into anything. In the chaotic final scenes it is not even clear what the fates of several characters are. Sam’s character has an arc that turns into a crazy zig zag like a seismograph during a major tectonic event. Finally the big bad of the piece does not have any defined backstory but lacks the mystery and charisma to become an iconic horror monster like Jason Vorhees of Michael Myers. The killer here is little more than a lumbering maniac causing havoc. There is an early suggestion that the economic downturn which put a local factory out of business is somehow responsible, but again this isn’t developed at all.
The messiness of the final act is compounded by the inclusion of violence against and by children, this aspect of the movie makes this a film that is a very hard sell outside of the core horror audience. Cub is just a bit too nasty and a little too pleased with its horror references to travel outside of that market.
Govaerts is a promising new name on the horror movie scene, and for all its faults Cub is a brutal and uncompromising horror film. It may not break any new ground but it shovels with gusto and if you like your horror nasty, this is worth seeking out.
Cub is released in the UK in cinemas and on-demand by Altitude Film Distribution on the 31st of July, followed by a UK DVD release on the 3rd of August