“Cuckoo” Is Cuckoo at SXSW on March 14, 2024

The International Premiere of Writer/Director Tilman Singer’s film “Cuckoo” took place on Thursday, March 14 at SXSW. It’s a delightfully weird horror thriller written and directed by German director Tilman Singer. It stars  Hunter Shafer (“Euphoria”) and veteran character actor Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” “Colossal” at SXSW with Anne Hathaway in 2017.)  It will release in the U.S. on May 3rd.

When Stevens left “Downton Abbey” in 2010 it created a stir. At the time, addressing the departure to make “The Guest” Stevens said, “OK, what I really want to do is a twisted action thriller black comedy with horror elements. Preferably with an American accent.” Sounds like “Cuckoo,” only with a German accent.” Stevens shared during the Q&A that he only joined the cast of “Cuckoo” three weeks before the shoot began (May 11, 2022). Speaking fluent German to Director Tilman on the phone may have helped him win the role.


The synopsis provided by the “Cuckoo” team said: “On a trip to the German Alps with her father and stepmother, Gretchen (Hunter Schafer, HBO’s “Euphoria”) discovers that the resort town where they’re staying hides sinister secrets. She’s plagued by strange noises and frightening visions of a woman pursuing her. Soon, Gretchen finds herself pulled into a conspiracy involving bizarre experiments by the resort’s owner that echo back generations.”


Gretchen Vanderkurt (Hunter Shafer) has just lost her mother—I think. Whether Mom is dead or simply alive and not answering phone messages is never fully explained (like many other plot points in the film.). The “trip” seemed to be a permanent re-location in Gretchen’s life, especially since her father announces he has sold the house she lived in with Mom. That’s why I assumed Mom was dead. That could be right. Or it could be wrong. Who knows? “Only the Shadow knows,” for sure (a very old radio reference).

And there were some uber-creepy shadows in this one.  Maybe we can ask one of the shadows chasing Gretchen as she rides her bike through the forest late at night —a particularly creepy scene—for clarification.  I mention the very old radio reference, because there is no definitive time set for this movie. It could be today; it could be any decade between 1940 and the present. Again, don’t know; can’t tell you. Just go with it.


The German trip, for Gretchen, is not a happy one. She doesn’t seem particularly fond of her mute half-sister Alma (Mila Lieu) —at least, not until guns come out in the over-long film finale. Her father Luis (Marton Csokas) seems much less interested in his teen-aged daughter than in Alma. Our sympathy goes out to Gretchen. The crowd applauded when Gretchen finally struck back at Dad.

At one point, Gretchen denies that Alma is her “sister,” saying, “She had her chance at getting a sister, but then she ate her.” This leads to a discussion of vanishing twin syndrome in the womb. That’s a discussion which seems right at home in this odd 102-minute horror thriller. It gets stranger when the writer/director admits that he was inspired by a cuckoo documentary.

We learn that Gretchen’s father and his second wife Beth (Jessica Henwick) honeymooned at Alpshatten Resort eight years prior. (*Plot clue). They are returning to discuss more construction projects with Mr. Konig (Dan Stevens), the resort owner, who is Luis Vanderkurt’s (Martin Csokas’) boss.


Upon arrival Mr. König takes an avid interest in Gretchen’s mute half-sister Alma (Mila Lieu). The little girl is having seizures. Mr. Konig suggests that Dr. Bonamo (Proschat Malani), Superintendent of the Chronic Disease Treatment Facility nearb, check out the little girl medically. Perhaps Alma is epileptic?

Something doesn’t seem quite right in this tranquil vacation paradise. The odd customers checking into the resort, the loopy behavior of Mr. Konig, the strange employees like Trixie (Greta Fernandez) fit right into our suspicion that, as Shakespeare said, “something is rotten in Denmark” (or, in this case, Germany).  The people repeatedly vomiting in the lobby, the scary woman offering oozy goo to other women— also mysterious creepy plot points. Use your imagination. Enjoy the ride.


Tilman Singer, Hunter Shafer and Dan Stevens of "Cuckoo" at SXSW.

Tilman Singer, Hunter Shafer, and Dan Stevens during the Q&A onstage at SXSW, March 14, 2024. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The 36-year old German director (Leipzig, Germany) previously directed the indie film “Luz” for “less than 50,000 Euros ($54,478.10). Tilman’s vibe is best summed up by The Shining.” Then combine a blend of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. For those of us who faithfully followed the antics of the Log Lady (and others) on “Twin Peaks” from 1990-1991, “Cuckoo” was less a revelation than a return to form. Eccentric weirdness, well-executed with German panache.

Singer shared that the film “all started with a feeling.” He mentioned the cuckoo bird’s odd habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds and abandoning the offspring. Said Singer, “That made me very sad. All the host birds die. There was a kind of beauty to it.” Cue the spooky music, and the sound is a huge component for this film. Star Dan Stevens said, “Filmmaking is an exercise in collective madness.  We all believed in this madman,” alluding to Writer/Director Singer.


Shot near the Belgian border at an abandoned British Army base, the entire movie gave lead actress, Hunter Schafer (“Euphoria”) a feeling that was “just like summer camp.” She described being in the forest with an abandoned town near the Alpschatten Resort from May until July of 2022.  Alpschatten is the source of a series of medical experiments supervised by the evil Mr. Konig, played to the hilt with campy verve by veteran actor Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” “Colossal”at SXSW in 2016.).


The film is very original. It repeatedly uses sound creatively to enhance and create horror. There are scenes that are re-run, shown back-to-back two and three times, with shaky camerawork. Director Singer credited his cinematographer Paul Faltz with suggesting and implementing the technique.

Dan Stevens and Hunter Shafer are quite good. Hunter Shafer has to carry the film as its emotional anchor. She is the psychologically traumatized daughter of a negligent father and still suffers from missing her mother. By film’s end the 5’ 10” former model looks about as injured as humanly possible to be and still survive. Shafer gives the part 110% as its imperiled heroine, anchoring the loopy plot.

There are weird touches like a pulsing throat, photographed in close-up, that are novel. Said Dan Stevens, “I remember being really freaked out by the throat.” It apparently was a large piece of artificial throat that was periodically wheeled in to be  photographed.


Some of the minor parts. Including the mysterious menacing woman, are not as good as the two leads. Other characters, including those that are supposed to convey menace, were either not well-chosen or not made up effectively enough.

The concept is original. Various means of conveying the story were novel. The claustrophobic sense of dread growing from the creative visual and aural touches add to our sense of danger and impending doom. (Examples: the bicycle riding sequence; the bathroom sequence with Gretchen; a car crash scene).

Some of those portraying the mysterious and monstrous villains of the plot are either so average-looking or so poorly made up that you yearn for better-looking (or better made-up) protagonists.  The plot—despite attempts to explain it along the way— is often incoherent.  Here is one  half-hearted narrative attempt to provide a plot that makes sense:  “In nature, modern man kills some species by our disregard. Some species need our help to survive.”


The Q&A emcee called the film “a cinematic smorgasbord.”  Synonyms for “smorgasbord” include “muddle” and “jumble.”

Only time will tell whether the promising touches in “Cuckoo” lead to films that retain this one’s originality with more clarity. One thing is for sure: Writer/Director Tilman Singer has followed the local First Commandment: “Keep Austin Weird.”

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