Fantastic Fest 2014, for me, got off to a rousing start; I didn't intend to slam three movies the first day out of Fantastic Fest. I normally like to pace myself, visit with friends, and enjoy the companionship and the vibe of the whole event. But for some reason yesterday, I dove right into it. I'm glad I did too, because I feel like I fully absorbed all the movies I saw yesterday. ALLELUIA was an interesting film to start off on - it's dark, odd, and very French (well, French and Belgian). ABCS OF DEATH 2 is a ton of fun, a big improvement over the first, and once the second half of the alphabet kicks in, it's charged and exciting in very unexpected ways. The final short, "Z Is For Zygote," is one of the best five or so minutes of pure horror that I've seen in a while.
And then there was CUB. Cub was a hell of a movie to see first day. There's always a film every year that I embrace and, perhaps, overhype beyond the film's own good. It may be possible with CUB that I'm doing exactly that. But I can only describe the way the movie affected me, and I feel like I can say with confidence that CUB (or WELP, the original title) will probably be one of the best horror films I see this year. There's a meanness to it - as events in the film go darker, there is a sensibility that kicks in, especially for American audiences used to seeing good triumph over evil, and CUB takes the audience to deep, evil places and abandons them there. Considering the premise, it's very unexpected, especially in a movie involving children, but CUB pulls no punches. It's effective and scary, with an ending that many audiences will flat-out reject, but an ending which to me felt appropriate and bleak.
This is Jonas Govaerts' first feature-length film, and he shoots it with the confidence of a professional who has been making movies like this for years. There is a John Carpenter mood to the affair, especially through the gorgeous cinematography of Nicolas Karakatsanis. This is one of the best shot horror films in a while. No shaky-cam work here; the camera pans gracefully over the horrific events of the film, examining each frightening event with a cold dispassion. Rarely has a slasher movie looked this good.
Yes, CUB is a slasher movie, but to call it that is oddly reductive. There's a bleak outlook to the movie, one that is never quite shaken, even through the film's humor (there are moments that are very funny, in a sinister kind of way). When a boy scout troop takes a weekend excursion through the woods, the troop puts up with new member Sam (Maurice Luijten), who is reclusive and quiet, with a disturbing past. The scout leaders tell the boys of a werewolf that lives in these woods, a werewolf named Kai, and it's all fun and games for them. But Sam sees that someone - or something - is out there with them. Determined to find out what it is, Sam brings the troop, along with their cook Jasmijn (Evelien Bosmans), into terrible danger.
It's a simple premise, one that millions of slasher movies have used before, but then the screws keep getting tighter and tighter and Govaerts and co-writer Roel Mondelaers do not let up an inch. There is a scene that will make animal lovers very squeamish; considering that much of it happens offscreen and concealed makes what the scene suggests even more terrifying, but people sensitive to the fictional mistreatment of animals may well have a distaste for it. It's a testimony to the power of the film how effective the scene is. There are some great kills in CUB that horror audiences will love, but as the kills add up, the mood intensifies and deepens. There are characters that we love to see put in the ringer, and then there are characters that are punished in gruesome ways that they do not deserve. Govaerts isn't playing around. He boldly explores some desolate territory as the film spirals into darkness.
I could easily see CUB being remade for American audiences; it's a miracle, really, that this kind of story hasn't really been done before now. But there is no way a remake would plumb to the depths of terror that this one does. It would pull its punches; it would almost have to. Horror savvy audiences expecting a GOONIES/STAND BY ME kind of adventure here will be tested in the extreme. There is a mood, a pessimistic sensibility to CUB that is difficult to shake, and in the film's final moments we realize we are seeing the beginnings of a great new movie monster. CUB doesn't break the mold storywise in what it does, but it's directed and shot with a boldness of vision that makes Jonas Govaerts a director to pay attention to. CUB is scary, bleak, funny, and a very impressive horror film. I'm excited to see it again.