Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Stars: Richard Armitage, Riley Keough
Released: London Film Festival 2019
In 2019, it seems like every kind of genre film audience is getting their horror fix: Stephen King fans have IT Chapter Two, social horror saw the release of Jordan Peele’s Us earlier this year and Ari Aster has only recently unleashed his deliciously twisted fairytale Midsommar… yet up until now, it felt like something was missing. Something bleak, mean, dread-inducingly terrifying, and that’s precisely the description of The Lodge, a chillingly atmospheric exercise in existential terror from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the duo best known for their divisive horror debut Goodnight Mommy. In a move that feels rather trite at first but gets progressively more unorthodox as the narrative unfolds, the directors once again shape the film around the maternal figure and the alarmingly unsettling nature of a dysfunctional family — in all of its aberrant forms.
Six months after a traumatic event shook up the family, Richard (Richard Armitage) and his young fiancée Grace (Riley Keough) decide that it’s best for the kids to get to know their new stepmother by spending the Christmas holidays together at a remote cabin. The father, of course, cannot stay with them — he works as a writer, so he’s got to be in the city until Christmas Eve. That immediately sparks a conflict between the apprehensive children and their disoriented new mother, and that tension only gets worse once they wake up and realize that they are left stranded during a blizzard.
From here on out, Franz and Fiala have multiple aces that they’d rather not reveal until the eventual finale, so let’s refrain from any plot details and instead talk about what makes The Lodge such a spine-chilling experience: from the sense of absolute isolation — both literal and emblematic — to its focus on the horrors of organized religion and their traumatic byproduct. Eventually, all of these elements get so entangled in the film’s twisted web of mysteries that they end up causing a dramatic shift in the viewer’s perception of the narrative – which is precisely the desired effect. Throughout the runtime, the film changes the point of view multiple times and we see the events unfold from radically different perspectives. It’s a very sleek implementation of this technique, considering that one of the characters in the film perceives things rather differently due to their life-long trauma that is deeply buried within.
Riley Keough’s character, Grace, is the anchor of this horrific endeavor: she’s a survivor of a suicide cult who is still harrowed by the remnants of her past. Once the cabin gets snowed in, the medication suddenly disappears, and that triggers the memories to come back to haunt her. When talking about The Lodge, one simply cannot go without mentioning Keough’s exceptional performance; she’s the one who holds this film together. It’s a very challenging, complex role — both physically and mentally — and Grace ends up undergoing a macabre, insidious transformation that gets her closer to the cruel past she once ran away from. Keough is a highlight of the film: she not only elevates the material but also brings something clearly unscripted and inspired. Anguish in her eyes gradually becomes despair, and then transforms completely into something much more warped and corrupted. Horror can come from many places, but here it emerges from the darkest one of all: a tormented mind.
Adding to the atmosphere of the sinister malady is Thimios Bakatakis’s claustrophobic cinematography. The film is mostly set in a confined, oppressive space: a very unnatural wooden house that has more in common with dollhouses than architectural structures (some viewers will make parallels with Hereditary, but this is where the notable similarities end). Using his experience from numerous collaborations with Yorgos Lanthimos, Bakatakis amplifies the sense of dread, unease, and isolation through unconventional camera angles, uncomfortable close-ups, and slow pans from desolate house rooms to ominous religious imagery.
Similarly to their previous effort, the filmmakers opt for a methodical, slow-burn approach (even more so than in the films like The Blackcoat’s Daughter or It Comes At Night) and thus the rug-pulling reveal in the third act feels more pronounced than the culminations of the aforementioned works. That, however, comes at a price: such a drastic change of pace may (and will) alienate audiences, especially given the fact that this move feels more in line with campy thrillers or gialli, rather than bone-chilling horror films. That is the only moment in The Lodge when it feels like the film wants you to take its perplexities at face value.
Blemishes aside, it’s unlikely that anything this year will come even remotely close to The Lodge in terms of pure, bona fide terror. It’s a film that gets under your skin, sits there just enough time to shake you to the core and leaves you in that state long after its haunting final shot. The lack of traditional scares and the uncomfortably glacial pace of unfolding events might be off-putting for some viewers, but slow-burn enthusiasts will surely have a lot of admiration for the artistry on display. It’s a subtle, blood-curdling nightmare.
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