I find the trope of teenagers with attitude problems to be equally relatable and alienating, depending on the context. Sure, a teen with enough attitude in a situation of absolute privilege will often present as a near villain. However, a teen who is struggling with grief and is forced, after the death of one parent, to live with the other and their new family, not just in a new city, but a new country? That is an attitude problem that feels justified.

In Cuckoo, Gretchen alternates between sullen and furious, but it is easy to see why. Her mother has passed and it feels like she has not been given adequate time or space to process the loss. She has relocated to the German Alps with her dad and his new wife and child. She is antagonistic towards her stepmother and stepsister, and we understand why, even if one of these folks does not deserve it. To make matters worse, the place they moved to is as dangerous as it is beautiful. The caretaker and owner of the resort they are connected to, Herr König, is hiding a horrible secret that puts Gretchen’s entire family in danger. Cuckoo is a wild and humorous sci-fi nightmare whose audacity makes incredible use of performances from Hunter Shafer and Dan Stevens, but its ludicrous premise could distract you from its beating heart.

Tilman Singer returns after a Euro-horror triumph with Luz, in 2018, to give us Cuckoo, another ode to ’70s horror of the continent; but this time, much glossier and funny. To be clear, Cuckoo doesn’t have what I would call gags or bits. Instead, the incredible characterization and set pieces will cause many audiences to laugh as much as they gasp.

The film begins with the kind of frustrated teen angst that I love. Gretchen is dejected on every level. She is struggling to process the sudden death of her mom. Gretchen is horrified that she is expected to live with her estranged father and his new family. She acts like she is annoyed at her step family, though she might also simply be afraid of being vulnerable with them. She feels lost in this foreign place, where she does not know even a bit of the language. This kind of domestic prison might feel almost anachronistic in 2024, but it does still happen. Though the feeling of being trapped within ones family as a narrative tool might feel old, I would not be surprised if more people relate to this scenario.

Hunter Shafer does her fair share of freaking out in this film, but it is truly her sullen silences that speak the loudest. I am so endeared to this angry young woman, and want her to feel respected as a person and less utterly alone. The film has other plans, though. Something, or someone, is stalking young women in the area and Gretchen begins to suspect that there is an effort to cover it up. That description makes this sound more respectable and even uptight than it is. The film immediately presents the danger, but unfolds the full meat of the premise slowly. We are never fully made aware of how this community came together, or why they have this connection to the titular “Cuckoo,” but that never felt essential. The film has a sense of whimsy in its fear and violence, but as I said, there are no gags. It takes itself seriously, but in the intensity of its commitment to the bit lies the sort of joy I felt deeply.

Hunter Shafer is, simply put, a real presence in this movie, and her ability to alternate between attitude and compassion carries a large portion of this narrative. If anyone doubted it before, it is hard to doubt after this that she is a star. However, Dan Stevens as the equally charming and unhinged Mr. König, truly stole the film for me. He seems to be taking incredible glee in bringing to life not just a villain and a menace, but a deranged true believer. His false compassion hiding his wild-eyed fanaticism is truly haunting.

Tilman Singer brought us a kind of hazy hallucination in Luz, with its creative lighting, pacing, and 16mm grain. It was beautiful, in a low budget, Fulci kind of way. It also set a tone that felt surreal almost immediately, and that surrealist vibe was heightened by the aesthetics. Cuckoo takes a different route, giving us incredible vistas and staging in its alps locale, and a visual style that feels very glossy, but also beautiful. Singer may not be trying to, but they are clearly demonstrating their range in these two films, each deploying a striking visual aesthetic that aided the narrative and vibe immensely. Whatever reality bending is at the heart of Cuckoo, it is still rooted in a world we can understand.

There are some creative visual effects that I feel to explain might constitute a spoiler. Suffice it to say, there is a question in the editing of the film about time, but I believe there are clues in what we are shown that we are seeing characters’ perception of time, and not a rupture in time itself. I explain that only because, in both reading the reviews of beloved colleagues and conferring with audience members at the fest, there has been some serious confusion about the mechanics of this effect. You, reader, will have to see the film and decide for yourself, but this writer did not find the film confusing at all. Or, rather, the ways that it was confusing were meant to be mysterious and did not impede my understanding of the narrative. I get what is happening; the background of it is not explained, but it shouldn’t be.

To whatever extent each viewer absorbs some of the more intricate aspects of what is, overall, a romp of a horror film, there is within the narrative a question about identity. Gretchen is not static and she comes to understand not only those characters who mean her ill, but the ones who she should, perhaps, welcome in. She slowly learns to let down some of her defenses and build connections with characters she was formerly skeptical of. We are presented with questions related to fate, either of biology, or class, or any other, a very relevant discussion today. Are these characters and, by association, the rest of us, simply who we are expected to be, or is radical change and growth still possible in each of us? The film suggests that there is, in fact, no assumed destiny that cannot be changed, whether we encounter it in religion, or culture, or in our limited understandings of biology. It is a radically humanistic position, one that, if we actually give breath and life, clashes with many contemporary ideologies. It allows for us to see how each person must choose their own path and that when we assume someone will be bad, we are making a mistake.

This discursive space is present in the film, but it is decidedly under the surface, and you can watch the film even if such questions are uninteresting to you. Cuckoo is more ridiculous and tense than it is a message, but if you give its narrative some consideration, you might be surprised how insightful it is while remaining entertaining all the way through. As is often the case with genre cinema, it allows us to come at something sideways that is very important, but it doesn’t demand we go there with it.

Cuckoo is an interesting example of science gone out of control, but just past that is a question of the instrumentalization of people, and I found that encouraging. People are not limited by either their circumstances or their usefulness to the world around them. Surrounding that insight is a hail storm of tension and angst, mourning and off-the-wall horror fun. The film is not what I would call gory, but “goo” is present, and there are definitely some moments that will make you squirm in the best way. Cuckoo might, at times, ask you pay more attention that we are used to in such a gonzo narrative, but with that attention come some satisfying rewards. It is the kind of movie that reminds me why I love weird movies so much.

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