Monday, August 17, 2015

CUB (aka WELP) (2014) Blu-ray Review

Cub (aka Welp) (2014) d. Jonas Govaerts (Belgium)

A group of Antwerp cub scouts head off for an outing in the Ardennes mountains (Wallonia, the southeast section of Belgium, along the French border), with their two leaders: the kindly Kris “Akela” (Titus de Voogdt) and his younger, rougher sidekick Peter “Baloo” (Stef Aerts). As with any assembly of lads, there are alliances and enemies, but “special project” Sam (Maurice Luijten) – a boy with a vaguely alluded-to dark past – is the clear outcast of the bunch; teased and antagonized, with only Kris, the gentle Dries (Louis Lemmens), and kindly and attractive camp cook Jasmijn (Evelien Bosmans) in his corner. To exacerbate matters, Sam catches sight of what he believes to be campfire story figure “Kai,” a feral lycanthrope-like youth residing in the woods, preying upon interlopers. Is the legend real, or is Sam’s overactive imagination – as his fellow scouts believe – leading to madness? More importantly, who’s setting all the intricate mechanical (and lethal) booby-traps in the woods?

There’s no denying that Govaerts and co-screenwriter Roel Mondelaers have done their homework in bringing this short-pants twist on the campers-in-the-woods thriller to the screen (partially funded by crowdsourcing and Belgian tax incentives). In addition to the ubiquitous ’80s slashers forest setting and a slew of mechanical traps that would make John “Jigsaw” Kramer proud, there are references to a multitude of horror efforts, from the epic overhead tracking shots of The Shining to a dead roadside animal and the chaining up of a woman to a meat hook (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) to a character with a Suspiria cell phone ring tone to naming a character after the director of Eyes Without a Face to the “Casselroque” nod to Stephen King’s favorite literary haunt.

Outside of the fanboy drooling, however, the writers have crafted a solid slice of terror and suspense that really only trips itself up by stretching plausibility to the breaking point. We see early on that not only do the cubs have to worry about the snarling masked Kai (Gill Eeckelaert), but also a mysterious underground-dwelling mechanical savant credited as “Stroper” (Jan Hammenecker). It is the latter that proves the more openly psychopathic of the two, driven mad by being unemployed when the local bus factory closed down.

But being a disgruntled assembly-line worker doesn’t exactly translate to becoming a gadgetry wizard who has decided to take over the entire forest, mindlessly murdering anyone that enters. I mean, all the logistics and resources issues aside (a problem with the Saw series as well), what does he do the rest of his time? Just hang out in his lair leafing through old issues of Ghent Monthly? There’s also a third-act “no way he’s still alive” reappearance that generates more guffaw than gasp.

There’s also the issue of our central figure Sam, who troubled past is hinted at but never made explicit (we hear his mother begged Kris to take him into the troop, and he carries a journal and a tattered family photo with a figure with a scratched-out face) and he never really seems that unstable at any point. In fact, he seems quite lucid, even when faced with some (mild) bullying. Sure, Kai and he seem to have a curious bond, but he’s not the ticking time bomb alluded to by the intolerant Peter.

This all said, there are definitely enough good things going on to earn Cub a recommendation for genre fans. First off, it’s extremely well-shot by cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, who captures the daylight flora-and-fauna beauty of the Ardennes as well as its creepy, after-dark shadowy menace. Composer Steve Moore’s music is also spot-on, with a driving central motif that harks back to the classic themes of yesteryear.

There’s not a lot of gore on display, but there enough oogey moments to earn a smile of approval from the well-weathered (wasps’ nests, elaborate pulley systems, and falling trees all play a part). And Govaerts definitely knows how to keep the action and camera moving, keeping us from thinking about the plot holes in the moment, including a clever running gag with the scouts’ truck’s driver’s side door sticking, one that pays off several times over.

As a former Cub Scout, I also had to give props to the fleeting reference to Robert Baden-Powell, who formed the World Scout Organization in 1907and published Scouting for Boys (the fourth most popular title of the 20th century with all of its various translations). Plus, seeing renowned author Richard Christian Matheson’s name in the opening credits as an executive producer (although he’s curiously not listed on IMDb) also made me sit up a little straighter in appreciation.

The performances are excellent across the board, with young Luitjen anchoring the piece, and marvelous support from both Voogdt and Aerts as his elders. Bosmans is pretty and engaging and likeable, which is all she’s really asked to do, other than fulfill her requisite role as final screaming victim-to-be. In fact, we never learn much about any of the characters – they’re all more plot devices than fully fleshed constructs, although the actors young and old do their best to provide hints of individuality. Hammenecker is more physical presence than anything, but he does his best Phillipe Nahon (High Tension) impression to worthy effect.

Also worth noting is the attention to location and sociology. Having visited Belgium for the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival on two occasions, I am somewhat aware of the casual tension between the French-speaking and Dutch/Flemish residents of the country. Govaerts and Mondelaers point up this disconnect via the troop’s encounter with a pair of tracksuit-wearing Francophone go-kart enthusiasts who occupy by the scouts’ original campsite, thereby forcing the kids to venture further into the woods.

This little touch likely resonated more with the hometown crowd, but it does provide a glimpse into the national divide, both linguistically (the thugs refuse to speak Flemish) and attitudinally (both sides make slurs towards the other’s background “French jerks”; “Flemish fool.”)

Artsploitation’s recent DVD/BR release (following a solid festival run) isn’t overflowing with supplemental material, but the FX reel featurette shows off the judicious use of computer-generated effects, the kind of invisible tweaks that represent the best use of the medium (erasing tire tracks in the woods, enhancing the landscape, adding in a few digital wasps). In fact, it’s only when the filmmakers overextend themselves (as with the dicey CG fire effects) that we even think about it at all. There are also a few deleted scenes and a trailer rounding out the package. But it’s the film itself that is the main attraction, and while not an unqualified home run, it’s a solid enough diversion, especially for anyone looking to see a bunch of wee uniformed ones in mortal danger.

Cub is available now from Artsploitation Films and can be ordered HERE:


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