Cuckoo’s director hopes young people sneak into his movie and blow their minds

Sam Levinson’s drama series Euphoria has been a spectacular launching pad for new movie stars, with Zendaya, Sydney Sweeney, and Jacob Elordi all seeing their film careers take off after the show’s first season. Hunter Schafer is the latest Euphoria player heading for film stardom, with her first leading role coming up in Neon’s late-summer horror movie Cuckoo. Schafer plays Gretchen, an American teenager reluctantly joining her father, stepmother, and mute half-sister at a remote German resort run by a deeply creepy man (The Guest’s Dan Stevens) whose excessively friendly front is obviously hiding some deeper motivations.

It’s a dark, strange movie, built around a central character who’s initially hard to like, then impossible not to root for as she takes more and more physical abuse and the odds stack up against her. And given the distinct gap between how the first trailer portrays the film and what’s really going on, Cuckoo is likely to be a significant surprise for a lot of viewers. Avoid spoilers if you can. (You won’t find any below.)

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Writer-director Tilman Singer, a German-born filmmaker making his second feature-length project after 2018’s horror-mystery Luz, told Polygon in a pre-release interview that he cast Schafer for the movie years ago, before the first season of Euphoria had even aired. When COVID-19 delayed his production, though, he was gratified to see her building a fan base through the series — because while Cuckoo is an R-rated movie, he’s stealthily hoping that younger teenagers find ways to slip into a theater and see it.

“We had to push [production] one more time because Euphoria was shooting season 2, and by then, it was super hype,” Singer said. “We knew all of that was really, really good for us. It made me happy, because first and foremost, I thought, Wow, she has a lot of young fans, and these young people may go watch our weird movie. I remember when I was a young teenager, the first really weird, strange movies I saw, that kind of overwhelmed me, that I didn’t fully understand at the time — I was so thankful that happened to me. I was fantasizing that something like that happens to other young people now, with our movie.”

While Cuckoo’s initial festival run produced a number of reviews comparing it to movies like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Ari Aster’s Hereditary, Singer would rather people didn’t call it “2024’s Hereditary” — he says he’d rather people call it “2024’s film that young people managed to sneak into and see too early.”

Mr. König (Dan Stevens, in a khaki coat and wire-rim glasses) glances over his shoulder at 17-year-old Gretchen (Hunter Schafer) in Tilman Singer’s Cuckoo Image: Neon/Everett Collection

Singer looks back with a particular joy at movies that he saw “too early,” like Alex Cox’s 1984 cult movie Repo Man. “I love that movie,” he said. “I was, like, 14. My uncle gave it to me on VHS in English. My English was really bad. But I was into punk music, and I just watched it over and over. I had no fucking idea what was going on. The other one — around the same age, I watched David Lynch’s Lost Highway. And these just opened me up. So that’s a beautiful thing.”

He compares the sensation of this kind of formative, often illicit cult-movie experience to having your heart or brain torn open. “Sometimes, something hits you with a force, because you’re not used to hearing or seeing [anything like] that, and it just cracks open your skull,” he said. “[…] I think that’s one of the most formative and beautiful things.”

Will Cuckoo hit young viewers that way? It’s certainly possible. Singer’s horror movie is a singular film, full of narrative surprises, an intense and emotional central performance from Schafer, a terrific mystery in Stevens’ character, and vivid images that stick in the memory long after the final shot. Singer shot Cuckoo on 35mm film because, as he told Polygon, he prefers the “big choices” of having to pick lighting and framing in advance for a limited number of shots over “all the little trial-and-error choices” of real-time, on-set digital manipulation. That gives the film a lush, hyper-real look that, again, may remind viewers of The Shining.

Singer is fine with the comparison — he says The Shining was just one of the influences pressing on him as he made Cuckoo, but it was certainly an influence. “I absolutely watched it a billion times,” he laughs. “Then when we were on location, scouting, and I found this large hall that we turned into our hotel reception lobby, The Shining just washed over me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, we have to shoot here, we have to shoot here!’ Our production designer was like, ‘This place is in disarray. This place will fall apart.’ And I was like, ‘We don’t even have to do anything! The patina is already there!’ They were like, ‘Yeah, we do have to do one or two things here.’”

Gretchen (Hunter Schafer), a 17-year-old with a bruised face in a black thigh-length romper, stands at the check-in desk at an old resort hotel amid wood paneling and wooden sculptures in Tilman Singer’s Cuckoo Image: Neon/Everett Collection

Singer says all old hotels “always have something ominous to them,” and anything shot in an old hotel is likely to take longtime horror fans back to Kubrick’s movie. But he hopes horror fans see his other influences in Cuckoo as well.

“Especially with a movie that feels so much like it wears its influences directly, you know, on its face,” he says. “I think that’s just what I do. I tend to write really unconsciously, to tap into my subconscious and let it flow, and then later understand what [I’ve written], and form it together with the actors. With that process, it’s just like a ton of visuals and sounds and structure pours out of my head.”

One thing he approaches a little more consciously, though, is a conviction that horror movies need some sense of hope. “I wanted to make a horror film, or a thriller with horror elements, or however you want to call it, that is not as grim, and not as spiraling down into an absolute doomsday scenario,” he told Polygon. “I think horror is a very beautiful genre, because horror is effectively forcing you to face death, or all the incarnations of death. It could be violence, sexual violence, all of this stuff? And the only remedy to death is a form of religion.”

Singer was quick to clarify that he doesn’t mean organized religion: “I’m not talking about Christianity or Islam or something. I’m talking about a higher sense for humans. How to deal with death. You could call it love, you could call it music, whatever. I think Cuckoo has a lot of that idea — we can overcome death, or if not overcome it, just live with it. I’m not going to spoil the last shot, and it’s not that crazy if you just described it. But that very last shot for me is the essence of the whole movie.”

Cuckoo will be released in American theaters on Aug. 2.