The World Premiere of Writer/Director Tilman Singer’s film “Cuckoo” took place on Thursday, March 14 at SXSW. It’s a horror thriller that is innovative enough that the emcee handling the Q&A, an enthusiastic film buff, dubbed it “delightfully weird.” He went even further, declaring “Cuckoo” would become a classic in the future.


Hunter Shafer at the World Premiere of “Cuckoo” on March 14, 2024 at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

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 becoming a permanent re-location in Gretchen’s life, especially when 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 frightening scene—for clarification.  I also mention the very old radio reference, because there is no definitive time when this movie is set. 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 his new daughter. Our sympathy goes out to Gretchen. The crowd applauded when Gretchen finally struck back at Dad.

Dan Stevens at the World Premiere of “Cuckoo” on March 14th at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

At one point, Gretchen denies that Alma is her “sister.” Gretchen says, “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, a discussion which seems right at home in this weird 102-minute horror thriller. It gets stranger when the writer/director shared 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.
Downton Abbey,” 2010-2015; “Collateral”),
the resort owner and Luis Vanderkurt’s (Martin Csokas) boss.

Upon arrival Mr. König takes an inexplicable but avid interest in Gretchen’s mute half-sister Alma. The little girl is having seizures. Mr. Konig suggests that Dr. Bonamo (Proschat Malani), Superintendent of the Chronic Disease Treatment Facility nearby (which we learn precious little about) check out the little girl medically. Perhaps Alma is epileptic? Something doesn’t seem quite right in this tranquil vacation paradise, nor does the Convenient Care offer. 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, in Germany).  The people repeatedly vomiting in the lobby, the scary woman offering oozy goo to other women— also poorly explained creepy plot points. Use your imagination and enjoy the ride.


Writer/Director Tilman Singer.

“Cuckoo” Writer/Director Tilman Singer at the World Premiere, March 14, 2024, at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The 36-year old German director (Leipzig, Germany) previously directed the indie film “Luz” shot for less than 50,000 Euros ($54,478.10). Tilman’s vibe is best summed up by saying think “The Shining” and 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.” 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 “just like summer camp.” She described being in the forest with an abandoned town near the Alpschatten Resort from May until July of 2022, roughly 7 weeks. As the plot thickens, we learn that 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,” 2010-2015; “Colossal”at SXSW in 2016.).

There were three filming locations:

  • Wuppertal, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
  • Krefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
  • Mönchengladbach, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany


Dan Stevens in "Cuckoo."

Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”

When Stevens left “Downton Abbey” it created a stir. At the time, addressing the departure that disturbed his fans, Stevens said, “OK, what I really want to do is a twisted action thriller black comedy with horror elements. Preferably with an American accent.” That statement was made years ago, commenting on Stevens’ departing the series after 2015, but it could certainly apply to “Cuckoo.” 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.

Praising his co-star, Hunter Shafer, from the stage during the Q&A, Stevens said, “It helps when you cast an icon in your lead role.” Stevens was referencing newcomer Hunter Schafer of “Euphoria” fame. The description “icon” applies more to the 42-year old Stevens, who has had a lengthy career (60+ films) and is fluent in three languages.

Shafer, who began modeling at 17, has 9 credits. A model turned actress, she is definitely a star on the rise (Shafer’s best friend is Zendaya).  But the term icon, by definition, applies more to Stevens than Shafer at this point in their careers (“a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.”)


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

Hunter Shafer is best known to audiences for her role in “Euphoria,” but she also appeared alongside Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage and Rachel Zegler in “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” In her next film she will co-star with Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, (who is also at SXSW for the closing night film, “The Idea of You.”)


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

Shafer has to carry this film, starring as the psychologically traumatized daughter of a negligent father. She is still suffering from missing her mother. By the time the film ends, the 5’10” former model looks about as physically damaged as it is humanly possible to be without dying. Shafer gives the part 100%, solidly anchoring the film.




SXSW 2024

Th-th-that’s all, Folks. “Cuckoo” cast flies the nest at the Paramount on March 14th; SXSW 2024 ends March 16th.

Some of the minor parts. Including the mysterious menacing woman, are not as good. 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).

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

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) characters.  The plot—despite attempts to explain it along the way— is incoherent.  Here is one  half-hearted attempt to explain:  “In nature, modern man kills some species by our disregard. Some species need our help to survive.”


The 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 but are more coherent. One thing is for sure: Writer/Director Tilman Singer has followed the local First Commandment: “Keep Austin Weird.”