Cub is not going to appeal to everyone, but if you’re looking for a nasty little horror throwback, you can do a lot worse than this Belgian flick. It’s certainly not afraid to get down and dirty and mean when it needs to, and fits nicely into the “kids go camping and find something scary they didn’t expect” subgenre.
When a group of cub scouts head out to the woods for an overnight excursion, their slacker troop leaders instill a level of fear by imparting stories about monsters lurking in the wilderness. As it turns out, there is something very real waiting in the woods for them to be afraid of. The group is full of types—you’ve got the bully, the nerd, the liar, the fat kid—and then there’s Sam (Maurice Luijten), the weird kid, the loner who has some unspecified issues that only come out over time. He also looks remarkably like a young River Phoenix, and turns in a decent performance as the “fucked up kid.”
Director Jonas Govaerts’ film hits a number of familiar tropes, like sinister townies and inept/disinterested local cops, but it makes nice use of the isolated setting and locations, like an abandoned bus factory. Apparently when the plant closed, it hit the economy hard and, according to one resident, they had to cut a lot of bodies down from the trees. Basically, the kids wind up camping in a suicide field, which never bodes well.
This is just one of the layers that serves to pile on the tension. There are whispers of Sam’s violent, traumatic past; he sees things in the woods, but with history of making up stories, he’s the proverbial boy who cried wolf. Creepy settings, a throwback synth score from Steve Moore, and elements like the boys singing a song begging God not to forsake them, all add to the atmosphere of increasing pressure and doom.
When strange things start happening, like possessions disappearing in the night, Sam is the obvious suspect, but we know that there is more going on, though precisely what remains unclear. You’re never sure if they’re dealing with monsters, something supernatural, or the Belgian equivalent of crazy backwoods hillbillies driven mad by the death of their town and way of life—there are undercurrents of larger economic issues in play throughout. This information, like much else in Cub, is doled out gradually over the course of the movie in order to ratchet up the tension, and this is where the film is the strongest, where it is really in its element.
Eventually, what begins as folk tale-based story takes a turn and becomes a hard edged, grim, downright nasty exploitation style horror joint, harkening back to the likes of The Hills Have Eyes. This is where Cub gets vicious, bordering on mean spirited, and this shift has turned off quite a few viewers over the film’s festival run.
With themes of power and control gone wrong woven in throughout, coupled with gorgeous cinematography, for most of its run, Cub is a brutal, exciting horror film. And while some have taken issue with this turn, it’s really the ending that is the most problematic piece (aside from some animal violence you know is coming, though is still going to churn stomachs). Without going into too much detail, it’s definitely a head scratcher, and falls victim to the fate of too many European horror films—it simply doesn’t know when to quit, tacking on one ending after another. It doesn’t totally ruin everything that came before, as in a movie like Haute Tension, but it’s not a satisfactory way to wrap up a movie.
Though it ends on its weakest note, Govaerts manages to make Cub a compelling, well-paced horror film that will be most appealing to devout genre heads. The plot is not particularly original, but the film takes you on a dark, twisted ride full of terror, brutality, and ambiguity, and that helps smooth over any rough patches. [Grade: B]