Calgary Underground 2024 Review: CUCKOO, Delightfully Analog Sensory Overload

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
Calgary Underground 2024 Review: CUCKOO, Delightfully Analog Sensory Overload
Two characters, having barely survived a traumatic and violent ordeal at a hospital, try to leave, only to find the doors locked. But wait, it is one of those situations where one door is locked but the other one works just fine. They exit. Given the events that occurred before this, the tiny moment is both scary, specific, and cathartically funny, all at the same time. It is a bit of a gag, and a bit of a, well, bit. The unexpected intentionality of it (which admittedly is a particular pet-peeve of mine) is representative of the movie in miniature.
The second feature from aestheticist and analog enthusiast Tilman Singer is a commitment into sensory overload, even in its quiet moments. Tactile and gorgeous, it is also completely daft.
Singer’s directorial debut Luz, was his graduate thesis from German Academy of Media Arts Cologne. A demonic possession shot on 16mm film, it was a brisk exercise in stylish dread, often light on narrative comprehension. Production design did an outsized portion of the work in infusing Luz with an crackling atmospheric tension, even if the storytelling was oblique. 

For his sophomore film, Singer has been given a significantly larger budget, 35mm film stock, and a sprawling German Alps resort location. One that is handsomely dilapidated, preserved in late 70s or early 80s glory. Cuckoo amplifies and expounds on everything promised from Luz, including some of the weakness. He is a far better director in showing, rather than at telling. Not a bad thing. Only when Cuckoo tries to explain itself, or offer exposition, does it dilute the gonzo energy on display everywhere else. One wonders what the film would be like if it eschewed any and all explanation to the audience and let them go simply go with the mad rhythms the plot. 

Gretchen (Hunter Shaefer), an awkward, artistic and slightly homesick American teenager reluctantly accompanies her father, Luis (Marton Csokas) along with his second family, step-mom Beth (Jessica Henwick) and half-sister Alma, to live for the summer in a rumpty and slightly gaudy mountain spa resort. Luis has been hired to modernize the place by the the eccentric owner, Mr. König, who, right from the start, gives off strong vibes that something is off - a touch on Gretchen’s shoulder that lingers a little too long, a flick of a glance, an offhand, and weirdly inappropriate, comment about Alma’s conception, from when Luis and Beth last visited the resort.

Dan Stevens' performance as Mr. König may make or break the movie for a casual audience brought in by Schaefer’s Euphoria fame. His weird energy is in constant, discombobulating, escalation. It is bonkers, and very likely polarizing. But it is fun as hell if you just go with it.
 Kind of like Cuckoo itself. He's a hoot.

Mr. König offers Gretchen a job working the front lobby while her dad gets to work. It is clear that Gretchen does not want to be there for the summer, and perhaps a job will help her cope with the change, or provide an opportunity for escape. No such luck though, as everything is wildly off-kilter. Gretchen hears the screeching, unsettlingly amplified, noises of the local cuckoo birds. The sound design here is on point.
What few guests are staying at the hotel, they seem to be even more affected by the strange energy of the place. They wander around and occasionally vomit for no reason. She is told that by Mr. König that she will never be allowed to work the night shift. Gretchen rebels, and covers a night shift for her co-worker (who is having an affair with the resort’s lone security guard) and is attacked by a crazy woman in a trench coat and sunglasses, with growing red eyes.

For those how like to categorize such things, Cuckoo is an oblique hybrid of creature feature, haunted hotel, dysfunctional family drama, and body horror. The movie even tosses in a vague (but visually powerful) time-loop concept, a team of demented preservationists, and a wildly dishevelled rogue cop (Jan Bluthardt, the doomed psychiatrist from Luz) with a secret past.

What holds everything together is exceptional direction, production design, and the tough yet vulnerable central performance from Hunter Schaefer. Like Ash in Evil Dead, she is put through the ringer over the course of the film. Battered limbs, head trauma, stabbed, gooped, and occasionally crushed, she convincingly soldiers on as the picture gets increasingly unhinged. 
Singer knows how to effectively use his wide-scope frame, and for the first half of Cuckoo, deliberately tells much of the story by way of reflections, mirrors, car windshields, large pane windows, and shadow-play. As the nature of the hotel, and perhaps nature itself, is slowly revealed, he switches to a closer, more tactile body-focused visual approach. Watching Gretchen receive several medical staples into her forehead is ... well, you feel it.

Does it add up to anything profound? All sound and fury signifying nothing? Your mileage may vary. But carefully crafted set-piece by set-piece, the movie is a controlled sensorial cacophony. It is also slyly funny, if you look closely.


  • Raju Murugan
  • Raju Murugan
  • Dinesh
  • Malvika Nair
  • Elango
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AlpsCUFFDan StevensGermanyHorrorHunter SchaferJan BluthardtJessica HenwickMarton CsókásNeonResortTilman SingerRaju MuruganDineshMalvika NairElangoDramaRomance

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