The most numerous slasher franchise of all time, Friday the 13th, was set at a summer camp but only one of the whole series (Jason Lives) actually had children present. This seems like a missed opportunity, as the extra tension of the very young being in danger was missed out on. A few other slashers did have their camps open for business, but only Sleepaway Camp had the focus be on the adolescents properly, rather than the (really old) teenagers as usual. Now after all these years we have Cub, a Belgian crowdfunded production that’s a love letter to that age of horror, told from the point of view of a 12-year-old camper. That’s not the only way this film takes an old premise and makes it feel like something new.
Sam (Maurice Luijten) is part of an Antwerp based Cub Scout troop going for a weekend camp in a forest right on the French border. The troop leaders (Titus De Voogdt and Stef Aerts) tell the kids that the woods are home to a werewolf child, Kai, so no wandering off after dark. But soon after getting there, Sam thinks he’s actually seen Kai. No-one believes him, since he’s always been an odd-one-out of the troop, but on this occasion they are very wrong to do so. They aren’t alone in the woods; more than one person considers it their territory, and will protect it from outsiders…
This film is made with an obvious amount of love for the genre, in particular the 80s VHS era. The set up feels like a lot of forest based stalk and slice movies, while never actively looking directly like, or borrowing directly from, any of them. There’s also a very nice smattering of little references, not too many, but enough to warm the heart of a fright fan and put in there nice and unobtrusively. For instance, the town near the forest is called Casselrocque; anyone who knows a bit of French and their Stephen King will probably have a smile about that. Also, the whole thing has a strong touch of 80s fare like many John Carpenter titles, with the 2.35:1 photography and synth score, while the ‘Home Alone from Hell’ style traps in the woods are a touch like some of Wes Craven’s works. Finally, at the edges of genre, there’s certainly a big dose of Lord of the Flies at points, with children put in a ‘kill or be killed’ situation, and a descent into savagery.
But it’s far more than just nostalgia. It also has a strong character based story to tell, and the pacing to tell it well (the film is relatively light on the carnage until the final half hour or so). Sam’s tale is one of isolation, bullying, alienation, and the effect this can have. The script finds a nice balance between what to show about Sam’s life and what to imply; it’s clear that Sam has never exactly fitted in with the rest of the troop, but there’s no need to go into the exact ins and outs of his relations with them. This allows us to sympathise and project onto him as he goes through one tough character arc and feel his frustration at the figures of authority in his life, the troop leaders, who range from hostile to ineffective, none of whom understand him. It makes sense that he begins to find a weird kinship with the figure of Kai that lurks in the woods.
On that note, this works very well in the horror stakes. This tale could have ended up very grim, given the direction of the story and the grimy, ugly scenery at points, but wisely there’s a strong tone of wit running through it. It’s an odd sort of paradox of horror films that the only ones that would really put the kids in the story in real danger are the ones that aren’t meant to be taken seriously, that know the story is a big, ridiculous ride. As such, this one has a gallows humour to it that makes a lot of what happens both easier to digest and hit stronger, since it all happens to characters you’re having fun watching. It also doesn’t solely rely on the gore in and of itself, building tension well and having some shocking character moments and reveals too. Not that this doesn’t have the sort of creatively gruesome moments one wants from a slasher too, with some unique moments that carry a real sense of impact.
Cub, while possessing a strong sense of humour, isn’t a horror comedy; it has a real edge to it in visuals and a mature storyline, so this probably isn’t one that those uninitiated to the genre should rush right into. But for those that have been down to the woods before in titles like The Burning or Madman, this will be a fun ride. It’s absolutely a slasher movie, and proud of it, but it doesn’t feel the need to follow the exact formula beat for beat, instead using the tropes to tell its own very strong and chilling story. Well directed, with a fun cast (including very strong child acting from the whole troop, which is an achievement in itself) and many a horror Easter Egg thrown in, this trip to the woods is no picnic, but a bloody good time. Dib Dib Dib!