Scouts out in the woods with something nasty…you’d think that premise would already have been used for at least one classic horror film, though more likely several. As a matter of fact as far as I can tell, Cub is the very first Scout horror, with Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse soon to be the second, and I wouldn’t be surprised if an adaptation of Nick Cutter’s James Herbert Award-winning The Troop became the third. But as it stands all we have is a few horror films that take place at camps for Scouts, in which the horror happens to teenagers, including Friday the 13th and its imitator,Madman, in which the Scouts are actually present during the killings but never appear onscreen.
Cub has come along to fill that gap in the market, and it cleverly takes its time, with a first half taking its cues from Let the Right One In with its suggestion that the real horror of the film is bullying rather than the more traditional elements of supernatural horror. Kids can be so cruel, but then so can adults too: Scout leaders Peter (Stef Aerts) and Chris (Titus De Voogt) are a vile pair who bicker and swear and pick on the weak like pack animals (did you know that a cub is a young predatory animal? You will.). Along for the ride with them is the beautiful and inexplicably lovely Jasmijn (Evelien Bosmans), who sees something in Peter that I can’t. As part of the fun, the grown-ups have cooked up a bit of hokum about a werewolf named Kai, and planned some scares to corroborate the tall tale. Like most kids, I got bored of the Scouts just after convincing my mum to shell out for the uniform, so I’ve never been on any scouting trips and can’t say whether this is normal or is yet another bit of cruelty on the part of Peter and Chris. Either way, the main character, Sam (an impressive child performance by Maurice Luitjen), constantly picked on and alienated, takes the story dangerously seriously and things are already out of hand before we even meet the feral child Sam takes to be Kai.
At that point, the film finally kicks into high gear and spends the rest of its runtime in sustained terror mode. It’s all the scarier for the buildup and strong character development we’ve seen up to that point, but unfortunately the film keeps it up a little longer than it can quite manage, turning from an excellent psychological horror to a merely good slasher. The key trick, used in Jaws and Halloween and Alien, is to keep your monster in the shadows, rarely glimpsed until the finale and even then not too much. This goes double if your monster is a bit crap, and Kai’s would-be scary oak mask is ruined when you click that it looks just like a homemade Guardians of the Galaxy Groot costume. But even after it takes a hit in quality, the acting and writing are enough to sustain it, and first-time feature director Jonas Govaerts makes excellent, slightly vérité use of his location filming and low budget – the film was financed via IndieGoGo, and good for all those who believed in it.
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