‘Cuckoo’ Review: Hunter Schafer Enters Scream Queen Territory in Wild, Blood-Soaked Thriller

Berlin 2024: Director Tilman Singer takes inspiration from Dario Argento for this slice of Euro-horror

"Cuckoo"
"Cuckoo" (CREDIT: Courtesy Berlin Film Festival)

Boldly going where many an actress has gone before, Hunter Schafer makes the leap from teen soap star to scream queen with “Cuckoo,” a horror mind-bender that exhilarates and exhausts with equal frequency.

If, in the abstract, the blood and guts genre has always readily welcomed TV ingénues looking to break free from their breakout roles, the particulars here are a touch subtler (and are just about the only element of this wildly over-the-top romp that can claim such a distinction).

For one, given Schafer’s initial showcase in the avowedly TV-MA “Euphoria,” the actress hardly needed to adultify her image when choosing her first leading role; for another, given the auspicious perch “Cuckoo” secured at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the film is anything but your run of the mill slasher fare.

This is, in other words, a Dario Argento inspired bout of Euro-horror orchestrated by a macabre maestro with style, script-notes and American money to burn, though little time to spare. In lieu of niceties, director Tilman Singer kicks off on a note of agreeable derangement and ratchets up the WTF at such an exponential rate that each consecutive sequence repeats the same ultimatum at a higher and higher pitch: “Get on board,” the film chants, “Or get the hell out.”

Schafer stars as Gretchen, a switchblade swinging, bass-playing, 17-year-old rebel, now living with her father’s new family after her mother’s recent death. As fate would have it, paterfamilias Luis (Marton Csokas) and his new wife Beth (Jessica Henwick) have up and moved the clan across the Atlantic and into a kitschy Bavarian mountain resort run by the obsequiously creepy Herr König (Dan Stevens) – but then, with a name like that, how else would you expect the Teutonic hotelier to act?

Right from the jump we can sense that all is not well in the Alps. Hotel guests lurch about the wood-paneled inn coughing and heaving, and leaving a trail of viscous jelly behind them, while a mysterious woman under a blond wig and wraparound shades trails the moody teen whenever night falls. Then there’s Gretchen’s half-sister – a mute child all of sudden overcome with a strange form of epilepsy that causes those in close proximity to become unstuck in time. Might the fact that the 7-year-old was apparently conceived at this lodge have something to with it? What, were you born yesterday?

The fact that all of those developments occur within the first fifteen minutes or so reflects director Singer’s mad-scientist verve. The director broke onto the scene with 2018’s “Luz” – another Berlin-selected freak-out that found greater unease under harsh fluorescent lights than in the dark. Such is also the case with his more profligate follow-up, which tracks a growing mania with glossy visuals, brightly lit and captured on 35mm.

“Cuckoo” builds and builds, introducing love interests soon done away in ghastly car crashes, colorful bit players, each one more cartoonish than the last, and a guiding mythology that lifts –as the title might suggest– from ornithological fact. Not that any of it really matters nor does it much make sense. That’s hardly the point in a film that hews closely to the most important matter at hand: To keep the heroine as blood-drenched, frantic and bug-eyed as possible.

Here both Singer and Schafer step up to the task, reveling in baroque extremity that entertains under the condition that you leave any notion of coherence at the door. As a pure, stylish exercise “Cuckoo” singes in the scene to scene, with the filmmaker taking evident delight in the edit bay to stage scenes and interactions that loop in on themselves. All the while the film charges forward, offering new expressions of lunacy to an audience given little else.

No doubt to the benefit of the theatrical experience, one’s ongoing buy-in is entirely predicated on situational factors. Viewed under the right conditions — that is to say, late at night, in a certain headspace and surrounded by an audience of fellow travelers ready to take the ride – “Cuckoo” will offer an awful lot of big-screen fun. Only those external factors are nearly necessary to meet an overeager film with only one note to play.

Neon will release Cuckoo in theaters on May 3.

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