A scene from CUB.

Cub

Belgium. Directed by Jonas Govaerts, 2014. Starring Maurice Luijten, Evelien Bosmans, Titus De Voogdt, Stef Aerts, Jan Hammenecker, Gill Eeckelaert. 84 minutes. In Dutch, with English subtitles. 7/10

Camping trips rarely turn out well in horror movies, even if the happy campers are a troop of Belgian Cub Scouts on a rural forest adventure. Pack leaders Kris (Stef Aerts) and Peter (Titus De Voogdt) spin a campfire tale about the werewolf supposedly haunting the woods…but misfit Sam (Maurice Luijten) encounters a masked feral child (Gill Eeckelaert) living in a treehouse, convincing him the werewolf is real. The truth is far stranger: the child is the ward of a sadistic poacher (Jan Hammenecker) who has rigged the forest with elaborate death-traps and hunts those who trespass on his territory…

Directed and co-written by Jonas Govaerts, Cub uses the standard slasher-movie template, but is by no means a typical entry in the subgenre. Govaerts’s take is darker, more interested in introspection, less interested in entertaining the audience through elaborate kill sequences. By no stretch of the imagination does it qualify as a psychological thriller, but its focus on the troubled Sam and his difficult relationships with his fellow scouts–even the adults bully him, to an extent–gives the character a bit of depth. Only a bit, mind you; I wanted to sympathize with him more, to understand him better. But it’s still more depth than the average modern slasher.

Govaerts also plays up suspense and atmosphere. Despite some missteps in the story structure, including a flash-forward prologue (where the film starts on a scene that occurs very late in the story, and then flashes back to show how we got to this point) it doesn’t really earn, the filmmaker keeps the pace steady and strong, maintaining the audience’s interest throughout. Fantastic location work gives the forest its own distinct character, although it doesn’t seem quite as vast as it should–it seems that characters get from place to place far too quickly.

The ensemble is uniformly strong with Eeckelaert and Hammenecker standing out in particular. The former sells his “feral child” act to the hilt without going over the top, while the latter reaps churning menace from his subdued, minimalist performance.

There are some other issues I have with the film. For example, the sole female character, camp cook and Peter’s girlfriend Jasmijn, doesn’t have a whole lot to do despite a spirited performance from Evelien Bosmans. Some of the “winking-at-the-audience” moments call too much attention to themselves (a minor character’s mobile ringtone turns out to be the opening theme from Suspiria). Stuff like that.

Overall, Cub is a strong film that has much to offer horror fans of all stripes, not just fans of the slasher subgenre.

CUB poster.

Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas star in ALLÉLUIA.

Alléluia

Belgium/France. Directed by Fabrice Du Welz, 2015. Starring Lola Dueñas, Laurent Lucas, Édith Le Merdy, Héléna Noguerra, Anne-Marie Loop. 93 minutes. In French, with English subtitles.

It’s an old story, and atypically for the horror genre, this time it’s actually a true one. Raymond Fernandez was a con man who seduced, then swindled, women he met through personal ads. Martha Beck started off a potential marks, but soon became his willing accomplice, leaving her two children to travel with him, posing as his sister and aiding in his schemes. In 1949, they murdered three people. Authorities captured them within months and executed them in 1951. The press dubbed them “lonely hearts bandits” and “honeymoon killers.”

Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz based the plot of Alléluia on the Fernandez and Beck killings. Gloria (played by Lola Dueñas), a lonely single mother, stands in for Beck: she meets her Fernandez, a grifter named Michel (Laurent Lucas), through an online dating site. Gloria’s passion for Michel doesn’t dim even after he bilks her for a large sum of money; instead, she leaves her daughter with her best friend and runs away with him. Like the real Beck, she poses as Michel’s sister. Also like the real Beck, while she professes to accept that Michel’s con requires him to romance victims, the thought of her lover sleeping with other women (which, of course, he does; even though, of course, he denies it) fills her with jealous rage. Which leads her to kill Michel’s marks.

I fear I may have given you a wrong impression of Alléluia at this point; you may assume, based on my synopsis, that it’s a psychological thriller. Nothing could be further from the truth. Du Welz and his writing partners certainly don’t seem particularly interested in exploring how a seemingly devoted mother developed into a jealous murderer. This probably doesn’t surprise you if you’re familiar with the film for which Du Welz is best known: Calvaire, a surreal horror film in which an itinerant singer (also played by Lucas) becomes the victim of a disturbed innkeeper who becomes convinced the singer is really his long-deceased wife.

Calvaire derived most of its power from the subtle implication that the characters had unwittingly crossed over into a reality that looks the same as ours but follows different rules which seem alien and insane to the ordinary human’s mindset. Alléluia isn’t quite so strange, although it certainly features its fair share of weirdness, most notably when Gloria bursts into a musical while chopping up the corpse of one of her victims. (Before meeting Michel, she had a job as a mortician at a hospital, so this is work she’s uniquely suited for.) In another scene, Gloria and Michel indulge in a naked fire dance; indeed, we see Michel perform dark rituals more than once, to help with his cons. (Another connection to the real-life killers: Fernandez claimed to have learned voodoo and black magick during a stint in prison long before he met Beck.)

The problem is that if anything, Alléluia isn’t weird enough, and there’s a hole in the film that the lush cinematography and the fine performances by Dueñas and Lucas can’t fill. As I said earlier, Du Welz doesn’t give the viewer a sense of what it is about Gloria and Michel that causes her to become obsessed with him. (Michel’s rituals seem so incidental to the plot that it only occurred to me days later that they might actually be working.) This void exposes the fundamentally repetitious nature of the plot. (Step 1: they select a target; step 2: Michel promises Gloria he won’t fuck the target; step 3: Michel fucks the target; step 4: Gloria finds out and freaks out; step 5: Gloria murders the target; step 6: repeat.)

As a result, Alléluia is a worthy effort which much to recommend it but little to actually love about it, at least for me. Others, particularly fans of Lynchian surrealism, might find more substance here than I do.

ALLÉLUIA poster

A scene from THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

AKA L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps. Belgium. Directed by Bruno Forzani & Hélène Cattet, 2013. Starring Klaus Tange, Ursula Bedener, Joe Koener. 104 minutes.

Leather gloves, straight-razors, primary color filters, funk-influenced Euro-prog, and lots of naked women. This can mean only one thing: the genre’s foremost pasticheurs of giallo, the Belgian duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, are back!

Well…let’s back up a bit. I kind of lied when I said “this can mean only one thing.” Giallo throwback felt fresh in 2009, when the pair burst on the scene with their feature début Amer. But over the past few years, neo-giallo has become a bit of a thing thanks to the likes of Berberian Sound Studio and Sonno Profondo. Now that Cattet and Forzani are no longer the only game in town, the novelty has worn off.

Still, that doesn’t make Strange Color a bad film, and unlike Amer it actually features a plot. It revolves around a telecom executive (Klaus Tange) who returns from a business trip to find his wife entirely missing from an apartment chain-locked from the inside. Tange’s investigation probes into the secret history of the apartment house, allowing for any number of diversions from his bizarre neighbors. The story is very thin at times and is difficult to follow at its best, but at least it’s there.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking Strange Color is a case of style over substance, though. For Cattet and Forzani, style is substance, and their goal here, as always, is to combine their themes (the connection between the erotic and the violent) with the giallo audio-visual conventions to create a specific effect in the viewer. With its nightmarish imagery–a man tearing his way out of his own double’s body (using a straight-razor, natch), a hole in the ceiling that drips blood, stab wounds that look like vaginas and vice-versa–the film feels like a stomach-churningly vivid bad trip.

The downside of all this is that it’s not particularly accessible, even to casual fans of vintage giallo: it deconstructs the conventions so thoroughly that it’s almost impenetrable. Even devotées might find themselves frustrated at how ready and willing the filmmakers are to repeat their visual leitmotifs over the course of the film. And that’s quite apart from the fact that the pair are beginning to seem a bit like a one-trick pony: there’s very little here that they haven’t done before, not just in Amer, but in their short films such as “O is for Orgasm,” their segment of The ABCs of Death. Even the “series of photographs” conceit (think La Jetée) was the centerpiece of their 2002 short The Yellow Room.

Yet even if it does turn out that Cattet and Forzani only have a one-octave keyboard, I won’t deny that they play it exceptionally well, and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears makes a fine addition to their body of work. A treat for the neo-giallo’s base of superfans.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears