Directed by Jonas Govaerts
Be prepared – that’s the Scout motto. Be prepared in both mind and body because the great outdoors are home to all kinds of threats and challenges: orienteering, finding shelter, making fires and (in this debut Belgium horror from director Jonas Govaerts) running from monsters.
It’s Cub camp time for a troupe of pint sized wilderness warriors. Among the nose picking, messy haired and scruffy kids that make up the adventurers is Sam (Luijten). The odd one out from the group, he’s got a troubled background and an infamous imagination. These two things may combine to explain why he gets so caught up in the Scout leaders’ stories of local a beast named Kai said to prowl the deep forests of the French border. And indeed, for the first two thirds of the movie Sam gets a reputation as the boy who cried werewolf. Only thing is Kai’s real and while he may not be as Lycan as the myth suggests (he’s more a wild child that behaves like a dog), that doesn’t mean he’s any nicer. Very much alone, save for occasional backing from the loyal Dries (Lemmens), it’s up to Sam to try and alert the group, get them to safety and show them who keeps nicking their stuff. Among the other unhappy campers are good Scout leader Kris (De Voodgt), bad Scout leader Peter (Aerts) and cook Jasmign (Bosmans) who all add a little colour to their green uniforms.
Govaerts appears to see himself as a horror Apprentice rather than a Leader. There’s nothing wrong with this – not every movie needs to reinvent the genre – and he’s clearly read the manual. Many tropes may be familiar, but they’re made to feel fresh. The atmosphere is heavy, with a lively camera constantly peering between the trees and capturing the deepness of the terrain. Really, the setting is used to its full potential and the humour is tastefully distributed throughout so as not to detract. In addition, the incidental dialogue and Cubby banter is easily more endearing than that which appeared in numerous woods based slashers featuring older teenagers. Many of the strongest scenes are those which let the boys be boys. And while often it’s difficult to appreciate acting in a subtitled film it isn’t here: the kids talk and behave just like kids do. In terms of an antagonist Kai is thankfully more threatening in nature than stature, and as the blood starts to fly it captures the right balance between terror and sensation. Toss in some inventive traps (laid by a blue collar villain who’s relationship with Kai is left frustratingly vague) and a strangely cathartic scene of animal cruelty, then you have an excellent first two thirds.
Unfortunately, like when a number of small hands combine to erect a tent, the build-up may be spirited and sincere, but without the craft of an expert it falls apart before the night’s over. While Govaerts does an admirable job of juggling different elements for the first two acts he ultimately drops too many of the balls for the closing one. A number of potentially interesting relationships and arcs get lost amongst the body count, or at least go neglected. This is particularly true about an apparent bond between Sam and Kai, which gets ditched the moment the threat needs to be upped. Sam’s story also takes a very significant turn towards the end, but with so few indicators on the trail it seems to be a destination that gets stumbled upon rather than being precisely sought out. Furthermore, the true villain, when revealed, has no observable psychological depth and simply isn’t as intriguing as the initial one which makes much of the action appear to be without motive. This wouldn’t be such a problem were the action not shot needlessly wide and given the now seemingly obligatory pseudo-nostalgic ambient synth soundtrack, that combine to give it a dynamism without much energy.
Overall how much you get from Cub maybe depends on how you’d rank yourself as a genre explorer. As the credits rolled I began to yearn for a time in my life, many years ago, when I’d have enjoyed this more. If I were starting out as a horror Beaver then I’d probably get a lot from this, though as something of a Veteran much of the effect was lost. In that respect it’s maybe good training grounds, or maybe decent for a badge on the sleeve of horror for new recruits. But I know that at no point did my time in the woods today give me a big surprise, which was a shame. I was simply too prepared.
Cub is released on July 31st.