Cuckoo Berlinale Review – Irritating, Unwieldy, Fun

How do you even begin to talk about a movie as weird, messy, but ultimately fun as Cuckoo? It’s a modern giallo from Germany, brought to us by NEON, about a secluded resort in the mountains, strange noises that put you in temporary time loops, and screeching women with red, glowing eyes that try to kill you. While Cuckoo doesn’t always live up to the insanity promised by its premise and most certainly fails to come together as a perfect movie, I’m just happy this kind of high-concept horror schlock is screened at a festival like Berlinale because modern cinema needs more movies like it.

Ok, but now properly. In Cuckoo, Gretchen (Hunter Schafer) is dragged by her dad (Marton Csokas) and stepmother (Jessica Henwick) to a restort in the German Alps owned by the charming and equally creepy Mr. König (Dan Stevens). A mostly empty hotel in the middle of nowhere always works as a setting to create an unsettling atmosphere without needing to do much extra work, and the hospital right next to it doesn’t help, but then, you guessed it, strange things start to happen as well. Gretchen comes across more than one lost woman who throws up and doesn’t respond. Mr. König is adamant that nobody should be outside after 10 p.m. And worst of all, there’s the mysterious noise that puts you in a time loop a few seconds long and the screeching, murderous woman with the glowing red eyes that follows it.

So writer/director Tilman Singer sets up all of these creepy elements and only adds to them as the story unfolds, but he doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with them all or how to make them come together properly. Especially towards the end, the movie gets confused within all of its twists and turns that move into truly unruly territory. It’s clear, at least, that Tilman Singer is attempting to play with the unfortunate cultural belief that sees women reduced to their reproductive abilities as to what their role in a fruitful society is supposed to be. But once again, I can’t say he sticks the landing here. The screenplay is just a huge mess and drags the movie down at almost every turn. It’s not just the unfocused ideas and themes, but stuff like underdeveloped relationships that are then required to pull off emotional beats that will never work and dialogue that’s just not good.

So having acknowledged all of those issues, can I also say that I still had a pretty fun time with Cuckoo? I would compare it to something like Malignant (2021), where it’s flawed and super silly, but in its full commitment to the bit by everyone on set and with how it goes full gonzo in the last third—even though I still think it could’ve gone a bit further before that—it’s impossible not to have at least a little fun with movies like these. (They also both happen to be modern Giallos.) And if you’re a fan of the original Giallos like me, then you know that those also often had similar flaws. But they often swung for the fences and made up for their narrative flaws with style.

And style Cuckoo has as well. The 35mm cinematography by Paul Faltz is stunning, thanks in part to the beautiful location the movie is set in. And the sound is probably the strongest aspect of the movie, with the punk-infused soundtrack and design of the unholy screeches and creepy ambience sounds found within this nightmare of an Alpine Resort. The movie is at its best in the short moments where characters are being overtaken by the sounds and get trapped in temporary time loops for seconds at a time, when the image and sound fully take over the movie with nothing else standing in their way. And for all the problems the dialogue or characters on the page may have, Hunter Schafer and Dan Stevens do the most with it and carry large parts of the movie by themselves. So at the end of the day, while Cuckoo is deeply imperfect, I had a good time with it.

Nairon Santos de Morais
Nairon, 21, from Berlin, is a film student by day, and a writer for FlickLuster by night. Movies and video games are his two big passions in life. As long as they are being kept separate, please no more awful video game adaptations.

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