Hunter Schafer is a very good actress. This probably won’t be news to anyone who watched even the first episode of Euphoria, where her aching vulnerability seemed to swallow the scenery whole. Fresh from appearing in the latest Hunger Games, the actress takes her first leading role in Cuckoo, a supernatural horror that doesn’t feel pushed to explain itself, offering a fun mashup of older, less-well-heeled filmmaking tropes. There is a nicely hammy turn from Dan Stevens and one finely tuned homage, but in Schafer it holds an ace: nailing the physical comedy and stretching her emotive face to the limit, the film is all hers.

In Cuckoo, Schafer stars as Gretchen, a teenager who is joining her father Luis (Marton Csokas) as he moves to a resort in the German Alps with his new wife Trixie (Greta Fernández) and daughter Alma (Mila Lieu). Upon arrival they meet Luis’ boss Mr König (Stevens, hardening the Germanic consonants to nice effect––his “Grayytchien” is worth the entrance fee), who seems unusually drawn to her and young Alma. Soon bored to death, Gretchen starts working at the hotel’s reception desk, where she meets Beth (Jessica Henwick), an alluring stranger with a leather jacket and an apparent appreciation for Paris. There is the suggestion of romance between them, but all is not well in the resort: a hooded woman in Lucrecia Martel-esque sunglasses is lurking around and might be following her; Mr König has started playing a spooky flute; and when he explains that her parents “belong there,” Gretchen loses her cool. “Isn’t that a weird way to put it?” she asks, in total exasperation. Good question.

Cuckoo is the second feature from Tilman Singer, a German filmmaker whose 2018 debut Luz showcased his horror literacy while maintaining a stylish ambiance that seemed at odds with its shoestring budget. It caught the attention of NEON, setting expectations high for what would follow––John Malkovich was even attached at one point, presumably in the König role, though Stevens makes it his own. Cuckoo starts with a bang and holds its nerve––at least for the first act or so, before coming apart a bit late on. We can point to the film’s inner logic or lack thereof: without giving too much away, Cuckoo features a supernatural power that seems to turn time backwards, though seemingly only for the affected individual; on top of that, the film’s female fertilization mythology (the cuckoo is known to leave its eggs in other birds’ nests) could have used a bit more fleshing-out. Even the least-pedantic of viewers might feel a little shortchanged at times.

What Cuckoo doesn’t lack is style. Singer blends moods with ease (Luz began as a thesis project on horror while the director was still in film school) and while the aesthetic says ’70s horror, director’s ideas are more ephemeral––no one vibe is dwelt on too long. The hotel reception scenes seem ripped from Twin Peaks––distant, jazzy sax; a curly-haired receptionist; a wiry, Andy-like policeman––yet they blend into the film’s framework. There are elements of grindhouse and pagan horror (note the flute) elsewhere, as well as some nice, jumpy editing calibrated to scare, but as Cuckoo moves to its final third the fragments of its ideas never quite form a convincing whole.

Luckily, Schafer is there to guide us through. Bandaged and bloodied, her jacket half-zipped and draped over-shoulder––gen-Z style––all the better for showing off her cast, at the climax she could be mistaken for an action hero, or something out of Alien, bursting a gut until the very last. Gripes aside, something about Cuckoo feels part of a wider moment. Micro-trends, Tiktok “aesthetics,” Radu Jude and Jane Schoenbrun––a cinema of new possibilities and no sacred calves.

Cuckoo premiered at the 2024 Berlinale and opens on May 3 from NEON.

Grade: B

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