New Flemish horror movie nods to genre’s greats
Shot by rising cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, Jonas Govaerts’ film debut Welp offers a horror-adventure blend that hits all the right buttons, with winks to Steven Spielberg’s early work
“A freeing genre”
To be strictly accurate, the film, which opens in cinemas on 29 October, is not pure horror, but a “dark adventure” combining horror with elements of more innocent adventure films, such as The Goonies. “The adventure aspect is pretty important, and I wanted that 1980s build-up of an hour before anything really happens,” Govaerts explains. “If a gorehound were to see Welp thinking it was a pure horror film, they would be disappointed.”
A graduate of the Sint-Lukas film school in Brussels, Govaerts (33) developed his interest in horror through a series of short films, including the award-winning Of Cats & Women, and TV series such as Super8 and Monster!, which cross over into surreal comedy. “I’ve always been fascinated by horror because it is such a freeing genre,” he says. “You can be as wild and as crazy as you want to be.”
For his debut feature, the Antwerp-based director was inspired by his time as a cub scout and the scary stories that would be told around the camp fire. “It was just the leaders pulling your leg, but when you are 12 and have a big imagination that can be extremely scary,” he says. “So the basic premise is: What if they have a campfire story, but there is something else going on and the two things start crossing over.”
And so the film begins with a group of cub scouts heading off for a weekend camp in Wallonia with their leaders, who are themselves only teenagers. From their campsite, they venture deeper into the woods, where someone, or rather something, is waiting for them in the undergrowth.
A feral child
Casting Welp immediately presented a challenge, since it demanded a troop of child actors. “I think we saw around 200 kids and just mixed and matched,” Govaerts recalls. “Wondrously, that worked out.”
You can be as wild and as crazy as you want to be with horror
Sam, the cub at the centre of the story, is played by Maurice Luyten. “I saw him in a music video that hadn’t even been released. He looked like River Phoenix in Stand by Me. I didn’t know if he could act or not, but the charisma was there. I thought maybe I could dub him if he couldn’t act, but he turned out to be at least as professional as the adult actors.”
The adult scout leaders are played by Evelien Bosmans (Germaine, Halfway), Stef Aerts (Oxygen) and Titus De Voogdt (Steve + Sky). “They all play a bit younger than they are, but when you are 12 – and the film is told from a 12-year-old’s perspective – then those 18-year-olds look much older, and we play with that idea a little bit.”
Part of the menace comes from Flemish character actor Jan Hammenecker as the Poacher, but mostly we see Kai, a feral child played by Gill Eeckelaert. At 14, he was a bit older than the other young performers. “He had the height of a 12-year-old, but he had the experience and could take direction like someone a bit older.”
The forest atmosphere came from shooting in the Ardennes and around Liège, as well as in the rural Flemish neighbourhood of Kasterlee in Antwerp province. Meanwhile, the Poacher’s surreal subterranean world was inspired by the Ark Two Shelter in Canada, a refuge from nuclear war built in the 1980s by embedding school buses in concrete and burying them. The result is a maze of dank, claustrophobic rooms with a layout that looks strangely familiar.
Welp was shot by rising cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, best known for his work with Michaël R Roskam (Bullhead, The Drop) and now much in demand in the US. Together, they watched a lot of early Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter films in order to get the right look.
Govaerts admits that this is not how Karakatsanis usually approaches things. “But if you want winks to Carpenter and things like that, then you need to study the language. That’s what we tried to do.”
There is also a nod to 1970s horror maestro Dario Argento in the music. The score was composed by Steve Moore of American outfit Zombi, who also tours with Argento’s house band, Goblin. “It’s a lot of synths, very simple and droning,” Govaerts says. “For me, there was no other option than that kind of music.”
Photo: Maurice Luyten (right) plays Sam, the cub at the centre of the story
Welp begins with two archetypal scenes, which together act as a kind of manifesto for the film. First, a blood-spattered girl runs through a forest at night, fleeing a half-seen pursuer. Then, a young boy cycles urgently through a small town on a bright, sunlit morning. One scene signals nightmare horror, the other the beginning of an adventure.
This mixture of adventure and horror is intriguing, and for the most part works well. For example, the rhythm of the adventure story stretches our feeling of apprehension so that it pervades the scout expedition that unfolds in the first half of the film. Seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Sam, this rings true: if you don’t fit in, simply spending a weekend at the mercy of your peers is a pretty horrifying prospect.
The adventure-horror blend even survives the unveiling of the unseen menace, and it’s impressive that we can see so much of Kai, a feral boy, without losing the sense of mystery that surrounds him. His scenes with Sam are particularly effective, passing easily from one genre to the next.
As Welp reaches its climax, however, there is an inevitable separation. Adventure films and horror films resolve themselves in different ways, and a choice has to be made. And so out comes the gore, up goes the body count, and off goes the girl through the woods. It’s a proper horror ending, conceived by a fan of the genre and hitting all the right buttons, yet it sits a little uneasily with what has gone before.
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