When you come to a festival like Fantastic Fest, it’s movies like Jonas Govaerts’ feature debut Cub (Welp overseas) that make the flights, insomnia and overall psychosis worth every chaotic second. It’s becoming harder and harder to create a viable slasher film these days, as everyone and their mother are saturating the market with hopeful urban legends and poorly-paced kills sequences, but Govaerts’ extensive music video experience lends itself to a campfire story worth fearing. So many films are based on stories told around a campfire, but few have the moxy to actually focus on a group of camping scouts haunted by an actual legend stalking their very campsite. Going the child actor route always runs a risk, but Govaerts’ ambition pays off as he creates an authentically chilling slasher revival that awakens a primal fear inside each and every one of us.
The story kicks off with a pack of scouts setting out for a camping excursion, picking a location supposedly haunted by a boy named Kai who turns into a werewolf at night. Getting permission from the authorities to camp at their own free will, leaders Peter (Stef Aerts) and Chris (Titus De Voogdt) march their boys fearlessly into what many consider the belly of the beast, laughing off deadly rumors while finding an open field to call home. As I’m sure you already assume, it’s not long before one of the boys claims he’s seen Kai running through the woods, but Sam’s (Maurice Luijten) claims are ignored by all. As things start to disappear from the camp, Sam continues to hunt for the reclusive Kai, which turns out to be a dangerous affair for all involved. Is Sam’s imagination running wild, or is there something much darker hiding deep in the fabled forest?
Cub sets itself apart by enlisting a troop of child actors who harmoniously represent genuine curiosity, with young Maurice Luijten leading the pack. Children are always a hard sell on screen because either their wondrous demeanor plays towards authenticity, or they spend all movie smiling like the goofy beings they are. While most of the boys are meant just to play around and provide scenery, Luijten’s werewolf-hunting adventure is foiled nicely by the acceptable notion of a 12-year-old’s overactive imagination, as the first-time-actor seeks a deep emotional depth within his abused character Sam. Luijten shows poise and development within, and delivers a phenomenal performance that rivals his older cast-mates, making Govaerts look like a certifiable savant.
It’s Govaerts who builds a tremendous universe for his campers to explore though, establishing a booby-trapped sense of uncertainty that ensures no character is safe. Cub is a strange beast in that half the moments favor slow-burn seediness that creeps and stalks, while other more drastic segments exude the energy of a vile, kinetic slasher film. As Kai’s legend unfolds, dangerous traps are revealed throughout the wooded area, which Govaerts has tremendous fun playing around with – like medieval torture devices with a boy scout twist. There’s no skimping on gore or brutality when characters stumble upon a hidden switch, despite the cast’s young age, which heightens dramatic notes by upping the moral ante. So many horror movies are afraid to endanger children, and when they do, safety becomes an inevitability. Govaerts makes sure not to fall into such a trap, creating no safe zone for pre-pubescent wilderness junkies to hide.
Looking back on the director’s music video work, it becomes obvious where such a bewitching eye for cinematics developed. Be it Kai’s forest hideaway or expansive legions of foliage, Govaerts has an expert eye for capturing scenery and engrossing details simultaneously, finding beauty in all things horrific. Even though the trees are splattered with blood, Govaerts is still able to tap into nature’s serenity, which only bolsters a helpless mentality once the troop’s seclusion becomes fully understood. While there’s safety in numbers, the rookie director makes every possible effort to ensure a state of inescapable danger permeates every single playful gesture that the boys carry out.
Cub would crumble without Peter and Chris doing their best to keep the peace, but of course, Govaerts has to complicate things by throwing a smokin’ cook named Jasmijn (Evelien Bosmans) into the mix, something I could have done without but find acceptable because of Bosmans’ performance. Not every horror film needs a sexy distraction, but Govaerts avoids the stereotypical horror scene where Jasmijn slinks off with either Peter or Chris during the dead of night, only to find herself hacked to bits due to uncontrollable hormones. Jasmijn’s inclusion comes full circle as Cub nears an end, aiding in the utter brutality of this reinvigorated slasher rebirth. Everything Govaerts does is calculated to some degree, which is admirable in its uninhibited depravity.
Govaerts embodies what makes foreign cinema so much more dangerous than today’s Hollywood bullshit, adhering to a world where happy endings aren’t necessary. Horror is supposed to be unpredictable, bleak, and f#cking scary, and all these notes are achieved throughout Cub. I’m not talking about pants-wetting, James Wan type scares like in The Conjuring, but instead a slinking, disturbing aura that crawls into your brain and makes you feel a bit dirty, which is a more rewarding sense of horror that lingers far beyond cheap jump-cares. So many stories are told around campfires, but few actually utilize the campfire itself, making for a chilling, genuine urban legend that’ll have you thinking twice about exploring the great outdoors.
Cub earns a proper salute for bringing an invigorated energy to the slasher genre, blending slow-burn thrills with crazy boy-scout-themed kills.