CUB is a tight little Belgian horror picture about a troop of cub scouts on a camping trip who run into some shit. It’s not as grim and messed up as that might sound – it’s not, like, a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie with little kids as the victims – but don’t get too comfortable, either. It’s a fun time for a while. It might not stay that way.
There are alot of characters here, established economically. The main kid is Sam, lookin like River Phoenix in STAND BY ME. He’s a perpetual underdog who keeps getting Charlie Browned. He seems to have some problems at home, but scoutmasters Kris and Baloo don’t cut him much slack. Kris maybe has some sympathy for his life as a foster child and some implied secret about his past, but Baloo clearly hates him and blatantly picks on him. He’s always looking for infractions that will allow him to give Sam boot camp style punishments, even siccing his dog on him while he’s running laps. And the other kids either don’t like Sam or are easily swayed by Baloo’s cruelty, so they enjoy watching him suffer and give him shit too. Kris is the boss and if he comes across Baloo over-punishing him he’ll stop it, but otherwise he’s too ineffectual to do shit about it.
But Baloo is also a “cool” scoutmaster with long hair, willing to curse in front of the kids and I guess with enough of a sense of fun to charm Jasmijn, the “camp cook,” only woman in the movie and most likable character. She notices Sam getting a raw deal and goes out of her way to be nice to him.
There are many sources of tension on the trip. When they get to the field they reserved they discover some tracksuit wearing French goons in a go-cart who bully them and refuse to leave. They find a better spot in the woods, but even one of the go-cart jerks tries to warn them not to go in there. The police chief – who himself is afraid of the Frenchmen – warns of a spate of suicides committed in the woods after the local factory closed. Will they find corpses? Ghosts? There are definitely some intimidating figures in the woods, including a little guy running around growling who’s either a tree-faced monster or a feral child in a weird mask. Either way he seems likely to bite.
Like any camp counselors Kris and Baloo have fed the kids a campfire spook story, and it happens to match up with the circumstances. They say that a young werewolf named Kai terrorizes the people around here. Most of the kids just play along, but Sam, having seen the real cub, believes in Kai and sneaks off to investigate. He knows that Kai, or whoever he is, has been stealing stuff from the counseloers, which the kids are getting blamed for.
So the goons know something bad about these woods, and the counselors know something bad about this kid, and this is a horror movie so I’m pretty some bad things are gonna happen here. Some poison ivy at the very least.
I’m not sure I would exactly classify this as a slasher movie, but I think it has many of the classical elements that are fun about that genre without seeming like a gimmicky throwback. Obviously there’s these young kids involved, which is pretty different, but the scout leaders are the equivalent of the Crystal Lake Counselors. They’re there to have fun and there is a little bit of screwing around when the kids are supposed to be asleep, and in a “these are regular people” way, not a “these dicks deserve to be stabbed” way. But there are the other characters populating the area, some of them assholes, while this cub has a certain amount of Frankenstein’s monster dimension where maybe you can see where he’s coming from with some of this, maybe even root for him at times. So it’s not all gonna be grim and torturous. And let’s just say that somebody in those woods makes some pretty impressive booby traps.
This is the feature debut of director Jonas Govaerts, who had done some shorts and TV. He raised some of the money on IndieGoGo, so it proves that real movies can be made with crowdfunding. (I haven’t seen the Spike Lee one yet.) This is also probly the scariest movie I’ve seen in Flemish so far? It’s nicely shot (cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis also did BULLHEAD and THE DROP) and acted, it’s got a good pace and follows the current (welcome) trend of retro analog synth scores, this one by Steve Moore (THE GUEST) and sounding kinda like “Tubular Bells.” I noticed two non-intrusive horror in-jokes: they passed a town called Casselroque, and a ringtone is a version of the SUSPIRIA theme – but mostly it feels like an original work, nothing meta or referencey or trendy about it.
CUB is solid. I give it a merit badge or whatever. Hope you enjoy it too.
SPOILERS ABOUT THE END FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE ALREADY SEEN IT ONLY: I don’t know, I still think this type of ending in a slasher type movie is a bit of a violation of the horror code. When it’s a movie where the whole world has gone to shit then yeah, I prefer the George Romero rule that the status quo is not restored. But in a movie about a scuffle in the woods you want to see innocence triumph over sadism. We watch this kid and this poor girl go through the wringer because we want the satisfaction of their eventual triumph. A downer ending isn’t really subversive anymore, it can just be stubbornly refusing to play by the rules so the game ends in disappointment.
That said, it’s not a total bust. I think it puts a damp ending on what could be a good crowdpleaser, but I can see the thinking behind it. When Sam suddenly turns from trying to do the right thing to indulging his dark side it’s genuinely shocking. And in the end I kind of feel like it’s saying well, if you have a kid like this, and you’re not gonna try to help him, this is what you’re gonna get. Great job, Baloo. You know, one of the bare necessities is human empathy, motherfucker.