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The feature film debut of Belgian filmmaker Jonas Govaerts, 2014's Cub introduces us to a twelve year old Cub Scout named Sam (Maurice Luijten). He's a quiet kid, he keeps to himself a lot and isn't nearly as social as the other boys are. This winds up seeing him picked on by some of the other kids now and again, he's a bit of an easy target. This doesn't go unnoticed by the troop leaders, however, and among the adults he is well liked except for one leader, Peter (Stef Aerts), who picks on the poor kid pretty relentlessly.
When the troop head out into the woods for their latest camping trip, Sam's keen sense of observation comes in handy. See, they're camping the woods that are rumored to be haunted by Kai (Gill Eeckelaert), a feral boy who runs around in a mask that he's made out of bark. Most don't actually believe that Kai exists but Sam sees him shortly after they set up and, feeling a bit of a kinship with him, he and Kai strike up a strange friendship. As the story progresses, however, Kai's penchant for violence and murder rears its ugly head and then there's the matter of Kai's father. As Sam realizes that situation he's now in and just what Kai is capable of, he has to wrestle with some demons of his own…
This is set up like a lot of other slasher films: people go into the woods, scary bad guy is there, scary bad guy starts killing people. It's formulaic in a lot of ways, but Cub takes that familiarity and gives it a bit of a new spin. The idea of making the antagonists a bunch of Cub Scouts is a good idea and the movie toys with themes of bulling and social anxiety. This grounds a lot of what happens between Sam and Kai in a more realistic and involving manner than a lot of slasher fans might expect it to, and it's definitely an asset to the story.
Although the movie isn't an out and out bloodbath, there are a few decent and reasonably gory set pieces here to keep horror fans interested. Most of these stem out of Kai's abilities and tendencies to set up traps for those he wants to take out. This will and does occasionally remind us of some of the gimmicks used in the Saw movies but it works here and Kai uses the resources available to him in interesting ways. Most of the murders take place in the last third of the film (though the opening sequence sets the stage for what's to come in that department) leaving the first hour of the movie build suspense and setup the characters properly. Of course, none of this would matter much if the performances weren't up to par but thankfully they are and the cast of young actors who make up the majority of those we see in the movie do a fine job. Maurice Luijten is great in the lead. We really feel for Sam and anyone who has ever been bullied or made fun of by his/her peers should be able to relate to the kid to a certain extent. That makes what he goes through later in the movie all the more interesting and involving. Gill Eeckelaert is also really good as Kai. He does the feral ‘wild boy' thing well without going too far over the top with it, something that would have been easy to do and that would have made an otherwise quite serious horror picture in to something campy. That doesn't happen here, and Kai is actually a pretty creepy character thanks to Eeckelaert's efforts.
Production values are pretty slick here too. Not only do we get a lot of great location footage shot out in the woods to help keep things appropriately spooky but the movie features a great soundtrack too (Steve Moore from Zombi did it and it's awesome). The editing is strong and the pacing is quick enough that the movie never drags. Some may argue the ending is a bit too ambiguous but personally it seemed entirely appropriate and effective. This is pretty great stuff, a movie that should appeal to horror fans looking for something a little different.
Cub shows up on Blu-ray from Artsploitation Films framed at 2.39.1 in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Shot digitally, there's obviously no print damage and the picture is sharp and amazingly colorful. Detail is typically really solid here and black levels are nice too. There are no problems with edge enhancement to note while skin tones look nice and realistic. With much of the film taking place outside and at night, shadow detail is pretty decent here too, things never get too murky when the lights go down. For a movie made on a pretty modest budget, this one translates to the format really, really nicely and this transfer is frequently pretty impressive.
The sole audio option on the disc is a DTD-HD 5.1 mix in French and Flemish with optional subtitles in English only. There's good directionality here and the track is free of any hiss or distortion. Dialogue is clean, clear and properly balanced in the front of the mix while the subtitles are easy to read and free of any obvious typos. This is a pretty solid mix, some of the directional effects add to the fun and the tension of a few of the movie's more active scenes. Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 options are also available.
Extras start off with a short film from Govaerts made in 2007 called Of Cats And Women. It's an interesting piece that was obviously inspired by classic horror and Poe's stories (it's kind of reminiscent of The Black Cat) and a nice inclusion here, running just a hair over thirteen minutes. Aside from that we get a music video for one of the songs used in the film (One Hour by Deadsets, Govaerts directed the video), a pair of deleted scenes, a quick special effects reel and a trailer for the feature. Menus and chapter stops are also included.
Cub is smart, tense and at times, genuinely creepy stuff. It's directed with just the right amount of visual style, meaning it looks good but the aesthetic doesn't overpower the characters or the story, while the performances are strong across the board. The Blu-ray release from Artsploitation Films isn't stacked with extras but it does have a few treats tucked away under its menus, while the presentation is top notch. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.