Cub [Welp] has been widely announced as being the first Flemish horror film. While that description is quite deceptive, for all intents and purposes the advertisers do have a point. Jonas Govaerts' Cub is a pure-blooded slasher, a type of film our region hasn't really done before. While I went in with toned down expectations, the result was actually much better than I had expected. Slasher fans are in for a treat with this one.
On the Wallon side of Belgium, Fabrice du Welz' Calvaire and Benjamin Viré's Cannibal count as fully featured horror flicks. Flanders had some close calls with Linkeroever and Small Gods, great films but not exactly pure horror fare. There are also some underground cult films that might claim first place, but they are truly too insignificant to take into account. All of that changed when Govaerts (guitarist of The Hickey Underworld) decided that Flanders could do with a slasher flick.
Making a genre film is one thing, making it stand out from the crowd is a lot harder. There have been so many slasher flicks before that the genre is almost a parody of itself. And that's exactly where Govaerts got things right. The film is littered with small details (like the mask, the various forest traps, the focus on children) that make it just that little bit different from the million other slashers out there. Mind you that if you're not an avid horror fan, these nuances might pass right by you.
Welp takes us on a typical boy scouting trip (though not all Belgian boy scouting groups would be happy to hear that - some of them even tried to distance themselves from the film). A bunch of young kids and their mentors head out into the woods, where they set up camp to play a fun Halloween game. What they don't know is that darker forces are roaming the forest. Sam is the only one who notices something's off, but he is ridiculed by the other kids.
Govaerts' biggest accomplishment was getting Nicolas Karakatsanis on board as cinematographer. Karakatsanis is probably one of Belgian finest assets in the film industry right now, credits including Small Gods (directed by his brother), Rundskop, Linkeroever and The Drop. He has a way of making dark and gritty beautiful, exactly what a film like this needs. The setting and costumes are also top notch, the "welp" mask in particular is unique and (potentially) iconic.
Having a professional musician as a director is a pretty big advantage for a film. Horror films benefit greatly from a strong score and Welp has some pretty classy music to crank up to tension. Build-ups in particular are moody and dense, creating a laden atmosphere that pushes you all the way back into your seat. It may not be the most memorable or original score, but at least it's a damn effective one and it's applied with minute precision.
The performances are a little hit and miss, but the lead roles are all good. Titus De Voogdt (Small Gods, Any Way the Wind Blows, Ben X) is one of Belgian's finer talents, Maurice Luyten did an amazing job as Sam. It's not easy finding a good kid actor for a role like this, but he more than held his own. The other kid actors aren't as great and Aerts and Bosmans aren't exactly prize material either, but overall the cast more than suffices.
Welp is a slasher, plain and simple. There aren't any big surprises, no amazing plot twists, no visionary ideas that make you question the essence of cinema. But there are some little things that might still surprise the hardened fans out there. There's a killing involving a truck you won't see easily in other slashers (especially American ones), the bad guys aren't as conventional and there's some underlying dark humor that gives the film a slight twist. Nothing earth-shattering, but enough to make it stand out.
With his first feature, Govaerts delivers a rock solid genre film. It's tense and moody, never too gory, beautifully shot, aptly scored and generally well-directed. If you're not into slashers than it's probably just another horror flick without anything to set it apart, but genre fans will know better. It'll be interesting to see where Govaerts will go from here, but Welp is a film they won't be able to take from him ever again. Flanders has its first slasher film, and it's a good one.