Monday, April 15, 2024

“CUCKOO”

THE STORY – Gretchen travels to the German Alps with her father and stepmother. In the resort town where they are staying, she comes across some dark secrets. She hears strange noises and is plagued by frightening visions of a woman chasing her. Gretchen is drawn into a conspiracy involving bizarre experiments by the resort’s owner that echoes back generations…

THE CAST – Hunter Schafer, Dan Stevens & Jessica Henwick

THE TEAM – Tilman Singer (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 102 Minutes


“Cuckoo” is an appropriate name for a film as bizarrely obsessed with birds as director/writer Tilman Singer’s latest is. The film isn’t as much a horror film as a winding tale of suspense. It’s well-directed but never quite manages to terrify truly, for it’s not afraid of horror tropes but plays into them with a self-aware wink to the audience.

The story starts with a family moving to a deserted resort in the Bavarian Alps, which looms over them menacingly throughout the film. Hunter Schafer (“Euphoria”) plays a teenager named Gretchen, who is grieving the loss of her late mother and trying to adjust to life with her father’s new wife and daughter, played by Marton Csokas, Jessica Henwick, and Mila Lieu, respectively. Isolated and misunderstood, like many teenagers, she withdraws into her headphones, listening to the music she made with her band back home. The small and very strange local community coils its way around the family, who have been lured there under the guise of redesigning the resort. In truth, they have been manipulated into moving in order to complete a sick medical experiment. With the family distracted by locals, Gretchen has no choice but to investigate the series of young women at the resort who have started acting strangely (to say the least). When her younger half-sister begins having seizures that are of particular interest to the insidious town doctors, it becomes clear that something untoward is encroaching upon this broken family. Combine that with creepy neighbors, an unnerved dog, and an eerie rural location, and you get the makings of a classic horror film.

Plot holes are not unexpected within the horror genre, but “Cuckoo” is insistent on overcomplicating itself and getting lost in its web of B-plots, including a short-lived romance, a runaway plan, a robbery, and an adventure with an ex-cop. As such, it can never quite figure out what it wants to be, as it finds itself somewhere between a family drama, action-thriller, comedy-horror, mixed in with a bit of “Thelma and Louise.” However, in the moments where it works, it really works. One shadowy chase scene involving a bicycle will have viewers on the edge of their seats, and there are several really well-executed jump scares. The most effective horror element is the manipulation of audience expectations. When Gretchen is told not to stay out after dark, it’s clear to the audience that there’s a reason for that. And when she ignores these warnings, it makes you want to stand up and scream at the screen, “Get out of there!” There is also a grotesque quality to much of the violence; nothing too disgusting, but there are a lot of bodily fluids flowing around.

Hunter Schafer proves herself to be a strong enough lead for such a film. Gretchen is funny, sweet, and cool when wielding her butterfly knife, which she keeps close at all times. Schafer is given a lot of physically and emotionally demanding material to work with and manages to hold the audience’s empathy despite a shaky script. The depth of her performance is often the only thing holding up the plot until Dan Stevens enters the scene, the real shining light of this film, playing the resort owner, Mr König. The underrated actor is so committed to his character’s bit throughout, complete with a German accent and a tiny bird whistle, which he uses as a tool in the twisted experiment. He is simultaneously mysterious and effortlessly funny and brings a heightened energy to the film, letting you know it isn’t taking itself too seriously. This is essential because the plot is very difficult to take seriously.

The cinematography is used to evoke a feeling of unease, often peering through windows or doorways, and there is a lot of work being done by the claustrophobic nature of the location. The film also uses a surrealist editing style during particular moments, effectively establishing a unique mood. The sound work is the true star of the crafts, though, employing the sounds of birds chirping mixed with genuinely terrifying screams. Small sounds, such as a heartbeat or wind chimes, are maximized to the point of being overwhelming. Sound plays a huge role in the plot of this film, and the shifts between all-consuming audio and silence are dramatically thrilling. Heartbeats mix with a bass guitar to build a score that sometimes features Hunter Schafer’s vocals, and moments of suspense are impacted by the intense sound of an organ. It all adds up to one hell of an exhilarating experience.

At its heart, “Cuckoo” is a story of family, of mothers and daughters. Gretchen’s grief for her late mother is threaded throughout every decision she makes in this film. However, Singer’s ending is confusing and drawn out despite also being bittersweet and action-packed. Whatever its misgivings are plot-wise, “Cuckoo” continues to surprise. Singer is clearly trying to say something important here regarding the female body, but whatever that is gets lost in its attempt to have a final dramatic reveal that is entirely too puzzling. “Cuckoo” certainly has singular elements of a great horror-comedy and never fails to entertain. The performances are compelling, and the sound work is consuming, but overall, the story has little cohesion, leaving the audience with more questions than answers.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - The sound work is truly masterful, and Dan Stevens commits to this film like his life depends on it. Hunter Schafer is a strong lead, and gives an exciting performance that lies somewhere between final girl and action hero.

THE BAD - The script is nothing special, and the narrative gets lost in its own attempts to be clever.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 6/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>The sound work is truly masterful, and Dan Stevens commits to this film like his life depends on it. Hunter Schafer is a strong lead, and gives an exciting performance that lies somewhere between final girl and action hero.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The script is nothing special, and the narrative gets lost in its own attempts to be clever.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>6/10<br><br>"CUCKOO"