Oddball Belgian slasher Cub is one of the latest Euro horror flicks to make a splash on the festival circuit. However, festival hype may be damaging for this movie, because although it's not without its charms, in the end it's a pretty slight and disposable bit of horror fluff. If you were hoping for this year's Martyrs or Let the Right One In, you'd better drop your expectations or you'll likely be disappointed. Personally, I found it a frustrating experience. It does have its good points, particularly in its design and visuals, but conceptually and narratively this arty little slasher is too flimsy to make much of an impression.
First, the good stuff.
Cub doesn't exactly subvert the "slaughtering campers in the woods" formula, but it does add enough new touches to make it at least superficially unique and therefore somewhat memorable. Unlike other horror subgenres, such as monster movies and body-horror, the camp/cabin slasher isn't exactly known for its thematic richness (not that it can't be, hello Cabin in the Woods). There's usually not much more to be explored in these movies beyond devising new and creative ways of murdering people, so to make a movie that's even superficially original is worthy of some praise.
So, what has writer/director Jonas Govaerts (along with co-writer Roel Mondelaers) come up with to distinguish his first feature from all the other Friday the 13th clones? Well, for starters, the teens of Camps Crystal Lake, Blackfoot and Arawak have been largely replaced here by children - a pack of Cub Scouts. The only teens to be found are the Scout leaders, and due to their responsibilities as caretakers, the usual sex, beer, weed and ill-advised midnight frolicking are kept to a bare minimum. The killing here isn't meted out as the usual punishment for teenage moral transgressions. Rather, the killer's motives and/or madness may be socioeconomic in nature, due to the closure of a bus manufacturing plant that has left many in the local community jobless, disgruntled and suicidal.
Although the film's central character is one of the young Scouts (a quiet, relentlessly bullied misfit named Sam), Cub's big drawcard is its mud-caked, tree dwelling feral child, Kai. The film's marketing has wisely featured him front and centre, because his wraith-like appearance and freaky mask are by far the strongest and most memorable image that Cub has to offer.
Complementing the film's handsome production design and cinematography, Cub's other major asset is Steve "ZOMBI" Moore's electronic score. Though more subdued than his stellar work on The Guest, it's still a satisfyingly creepy synth score.
That's the stuff worthy of merit badges (sorry). Now to the not so good. (some spoilers follow, but honestly you can see all this coming from a mile away, so no biggie).
The killer is revealed as a hermit who lives in a vast network of tunnels that exists under the forest floor. I've seen him described elsewhere as a poacher, but the impression I got is that he's a disgruntled ex-employee of the aforementioned closed bus factory (his subterranean labyrinth is constructed of leftover buses). Our murderous hermit is some kind of brilliant engineering genius, and has a control room that is somehow linked to a number of elaborate, jerry-rigged sensors and traps littered throughout forest above (the creepy Rube Goldberg traps are actually another of Cub's strong points). From here he monitors the movements of interlopers into his wooded domain, and I think he can also remotely spring some of the traps. All of this nonsense may sound cool on paper, but it doesn't really work in the movie. It's all extremely implausible and kind of ridiculous. I usually have no trouble suspending my disbelief in horror movies, but I was kind of rolling my eyes here.
Most frustratingly, the film's best feature, Kai the feral kid, isn't a satisfying enough character. He seems to be the killer's accomplice (think a Flemish take on The Hills Have Eyes), but I couldn't figure out what their relationship was. Is he his son? Another economic victim of the factory closure, maybe the son of one of the laid-off workers who allegedly hung themselves in the woods? Just some weird fuckin' kid? I have no idea. It's possible that I missed a bunch of crucial exposition that would have cleared up some of my confusion. But honestly, I don't think I did.
At the risk of sounding like a gore obsessed delinquent who just wanted this movie to be a Saw sequel in the woods, I think the thing that would have saved Cub from mediocrity is more viciousness and a meaner streak to its violence. If the traps were nastier, and if the gore had been stronger and more explicit (and more plentiful) it could have been a cult classic. The juxtaposition of sweet coming of age story with truly brutal slasher gore (think The Prowler or Opera levels of sadism) might just have made it work like gangbusters. As it is, the watered-down kills and by-the-numbers predictability of the conclusion really lets this film down.
Put it this way, there's a nifty little easter egg in Cub, a reference to Suspiria, and being reminded of Argento's classic was probably the funnest moment for me in what was otherwise a pretty drab experience. If you only see one European horror flick this year about a couple of creepy little boys, you might be better off watching the far superior Goodnight Mommy instead.