SXSW 2024: ‘Cuckoo’ Lives Up to its Title

Credit: SXSW Press

When you title your horror film ‘Cuckoo’, as writer and director Tilman Singer so boldly did, you have a lot to live up to. Let it be said here, for the record, this movie lives up to it. Oh boy, does it live up to it. With equal parts horror, comedy, and satire ‘Cuckoo’ is a ride that is frenetically unlike most movies of its ilk.

It begins as most horror movies in nature do, a family moving to a remote location where everything seems ideal. That idealism is quickly subverted by the combination of familial trouble and a place where something seems to be scurrying under the surface. The ‘something’ here is what makes Cuckoo so special. The monster is less monstrous than those who work so hard to control it. The result is a narratively satirical romp through the current issue of female body autonomy. 

This is not to say the film is an ‘issue’ film. It is very much visceral and is happy to skate along the surface in a tense, hilarious, and ratcheting manner until the finale. It is a storytelling ride meant to entertain. The satire that glides beneath that brisk narrative does little more than smile coyly back at the audience. It is never anywhere near the nose, let alone on it. It could reasonably seen as a unique, quirky horror film in the spirit of many recent European-based horror movies. A story of the things hiding in the shadow, in the periphery. 

The story itself involves a mixed family. Luis (Martin Csokas) and Beth(Jessica Henwick) had planned to move with their young daughter, Alma (Mila Lieu) to a resort in the mountains to plan and develop a neighboring resort. The trouble is, Luis’s daughter from a previous relationship is now coming along. This daughter, Gretchen (Hunter Schafer) was not part of the plan. This plan becomes quickly suspicious when the resort owner, Mr König (Dan Stevens) reacts so strangely to Gretchen’s presence.


From here, the film plays out with slow reveals to the threat in the dark, to the creature that roams the forest around them. The less said, the better, but suffice it to say the creature and its motivations are unlike anything seen before. Unique and strange, the monster would be more than enough to carry a quirky little horror film. The film, though, adds another layer. Another villain. And that villainy is what allows the above-mentioned subtext to skirt so successfully under the surface. As with most great horror, the theme is what makes it special but is also careful to not let the theme overtake the narrative. Horror films are always about something, but it usually can only succeed when that something hides behind the literal monstrous that looms on screen. 

Cuckoo is very much about female autonomy over their own bodies, but it presents it with such energy and tension that many audience members may just skim along with the narrative and be enthralled with the literal sequences of the film. And, even on this level, Cuckoo is a hell of a film. It avoids the monotony of tiredly derivative horror and presents wonderful characters, wonderful performances, and wonderful scares. 

So, come for Hunter Schafer and Dan Stevens, as their performances will prove to be iconic, but stay for the wildly creative storytelling on display through the film. Cuckoo is a special little film and will be discussed for a long time to come.