This Belgian horror flick squanders its solid premise by relying on cheap shocks.
Anecdotally, I would venture to guess that one of the top three settings for horror movies is the woods. (Haunted houses and school settings would be the other two.) Some of the great films of the genre are set in the woods, including early slasher flick Friday the 13th, indie juggernaut The Blair Witch Project, Whedon wonder The Cabin in the Woods, and personal fave Sleepaway Camp. High school horror might be a metaphor for youth, and a haunted house might represent the violation of a home’s security, but the woods, despite their earthly serenity, are full of actual living critters, so no one can ever know which creature might be up to no good. That’s scary. The latest horror film to explore the wooded unknown is the Belgian movie Cub, from director/co-writer Jonas Govaerts.
Cub tells the tale of a pack of cub scouts who, led by adults Peter (Stef Aerts) and Kris (Titus De Voogdt), embark on a weekend camping trip in a local forest. As adult scout leaders en route to a campout with young scouts are wont to do, these adults tell the scouts a scary story; this one is the story of Kai, a werewolf who allegedly lives in the woods near where they are camping and has a penchant for killing campers.
One scout who takes the Kai story to heart is Sam (Maurice Luijten), a somewhat troubled 12-year-old whose belief in Kai invites derision from others (especially the adults). This becomes a problem, however, when Sam finds a secret tree house. He also comes face to face with that tree house’s resident, a young, masked feral boy (Gill Eeckelaert) Sam believes to be Kai; no one believes Sam when he recounts his tale, and it’s only when the feral boy’s (supposed) parental guardian starts racking up a body count that things are taken a little more seriously.
It’s time to add another title to the “What Could Have Been” pile. Cub, despite its good intentions and a solid premise, fails to do the one thing a horror film should do: generate terror.
It starts well, with an opening that finds a girl being chased through the woods. Not only is the scene exciting, efficient, and very well shot (by cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis), it fully reveals the feral boy—who looks like a dirty kid in an angry Groot mask—in the first few seconds. It also reveals the diabolical nature of the traps the boy has set throughout the woods. It’s a great way to hook viewers in from the get-go.
This opening gambit is followed by a classic set-up: a group of people (kids, in this case) go carting off into the woods and once they get there, things go wrong. It’s here director Govaerts allows the discovery of evil to gradually unfold, which is reminiscent of early slasher films, where atmosphere and mood (and just enough plot) are allowed to breathe before things accelerate.
Govaerts, however, doesn’t really know how to accelerate the film into that high horror gear. What should be an enthralling sequence of events that alternate from suspenseful to terrifying and back again are instead a scattershot collection of moments separated by rhythmless downtime. And those moments are not frightening; they’re shocking at best and at worst, they’re sadistic incidents played out for nothing more than sadism’s sake.
Be shocked! as an adult brutally abuses a child in a grossly disproportionate response to an event. Be shocked! as a collection of children fall victim to a random act of violence. Be shocked! when a dog is specifically targeted to be the victim of egregious violence, not only in another grossly disproportionate act, but in an act that does nothing to advance the plot or develop a character.
None of this is to say shock is bad; it isn’t. Shock can be fun. But shock is a horror film’s empty calories—the cheese puffs that might taste good in the moment but offer nothing in the way sustenance; being force-fed too many leaves little more than a tacky residue on the fingers.
The film is not without its positives, including the aforementioned open, some other bright spots including a clever title, considerable creativity in the those diabolical traps set in the woods, and Maurice Luijten as Sam, who calls to mind, at least in appearance, a young River Phoenix.
Unfortunately these things aren’t enough. Flat characters, gaping plotholes, and inexplicable creative choices combine to be too much for Cub to pull itself out of the death spiral it takes once it peaks as it moves into the second act.
Cub is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.