Horror as a means of directly confronting human trauma is not a new concept that suddenly sprang out of nowhere with Hereditary. If anything, it’s arguably the basis for all horror dating back to the very beginning. What’s better for battling your demons through writing than by writing about actual demons? It’s an effective expression of catharsis through the feeling of terror, a feeling that lingers beyond just a cheap jump-scare. Effective horror, or at least horror that is not enjoyed ironically, needs to build a world of terror that is pervasive throughout the film. The dark intrigue of not always knowing what just went bump in the night can often times provide a more frightening experience than staring a specter, monster, or a serial killer dead in the face. The secret to building an effective horror experience brick-by-brick is how you provide audiences with a satisfying payoff to their time invested. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a Color Out of Space-level bombastic finale of sight and sound (which does have its merits, mind you), but rather making sure that the story you have involved your audience in feels complete and respectful to the audience’s time and intelligence, even if in ambiguity.
The Lodge is a film that’s been making the rounds around film festivals for quite some time now, beginning with its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Produced independently by the legendary horror house Hammer Films, The Lodge was originally scheduled for a Nov. 15 release, but the film was pushed back to allow its distributor, Neon, to focus on their awards contenders of the year, particularly the cultural phenomenon Parasite. Now, in the dead of winter (a winter that is providing North Carolina with 70 degree monsoons and tornado warnings as I type), The Lodge is opening its icy doors to let audiences into the warmth and safety of its walls.
Just kidding, this specific lodge is Hell frozen over on Earth. Welcome inside.
Grace (Riley Keough) is a seemingly normal young woman looking to find her way in the world following an earth-shaking childhood trauma that she has come to manage. Her engagement to her previously married fiancé, Richard (Richard Armitage) is thrown into chaos when a violent tragedy strikes him and his children, Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), creating a vast amount of tension between her and the children. At her naïve, but well-intentioned suggestion, the four of them travel to the family winter lodge for the Christmas holiday. When Richard is called back to the city for work, Grace is left to fend for herself with the children as strange happenings begin to plague their seemingly picturesque lodge, forcing them to confront their biggest demons in the process.
The Lodge is deceptively simple on paper, and it’s easy to look at the trailer and feel a sort of familiarity with the story being told, but there’s a biting twist to The Lodge. It’s one that is best left experienced in the moment with little-to-no knowledge of going in and one that elevates the film to one of the more genuinely unsettling horror entries in recent memory. Those familiar with2015’s hidden gem Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh, Ich Seh) from Austrian filmmaking duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, can rightfully assume the type of tone the duo spins in their English follow-up. This isn’t a film that inundates the audience with flashy visuals or loud jump-scares, and it’s also not a film that takes such a long time building its atmosphere that it feels as though the destination does not warrant the journey. It’s a rare film that spends its time wisely fleshing out the details of the horror of everyday domestic life, while also dipping its toes into the truly “out there” for a uniquely dread-inducing experience.
Performances from the three main leads are consistently impressive across the board, but it would be inaccurate to describe this as anything but Riley Keough’s showcase. While not as jarringly perfect of a performance as Toni Collette in Hereditary, it’s still among one of the most genuinely unnerving and disturbing lead performances in a horror film in recent memory. Keough has often been the actress filmmakers go to for memorable supporting performances in indie films, but it’s refreshing to not only see Keough get a crack at her own film as a leading actress, but for her to pull it off with such an intense ease. Being Elvis’s granddaughter might’ve definitely given her an edge in the industry, but her immense talent as an actress is what is going to keep her here as a force to be reckoned with.
Much like Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge forces viewers to sit in quiet, nerve-shaking isolation with a small group of people who are, to be frank, not very fun to be around. The jarring events of the film’s cold open linger long and hard into The Lodge, and it does, for a while, feel like that’s the most horrifying the film would end up being, particularly in its middle act. What makes the payoff so effective is the selective nature of what the film wants and doesn’t want to reveal to you. This doesn’t leave the film full of unforeseen plot holes as with many films attempting thematic ambiguity without the foresight to pull it off successfully, but rather, leaves the audience asking questions that the film couldn’t answer, even if the entirety of the film’s events played out in the most straightforward fashion possible.
This is all thanks to the deft direction from Franz and Fiala, who utilize spatial resonance and narrative perspective in a way to reveal all that needs to be revealed without having to spoon-feed the audience their dose of dread. While it certainly is a slow burn, The Lodge utilizes its pacing to build its scares by placing a colossal pit in your stomach from the very opening scene and refusing to lift its oppressive weight off of your body until long after the credits roll. This is the type of cinematic terror that is the most hauntingly and keeps you up at night, pondering how the effects of the events of the film’s would affect us and those we love in the same situation. The Lodge is equally as effective at home after the film as it is in the moment as you’ll be looking around every corner and keeping every light on.
The Lodge also benefits from the uncanny effect of its cinematography, shot by longtime Yorgos Lanthimos collaborator Thimos Bakatakis. Like his work on Lanthimos’s films, there’s a disturbingly grounded view of the world as we see it and that morphs into its unconventional approach of long, deep focus close-up shots focusing solely on the character’s faces and the emotional journeys they all experience, often times multiple times within the same scene. This paired with a cold, dead palette of whites and neutral tones framed exquisitely with natural lighting, gives The Lodge a sense of something hauntingly familiar with the slow unease it makes you feel. It’s not the textbook visual approach for “claustrophobic horror film,” and Bakatakis’s adept staging of the film is all the better for it.
There’s an indication that The Lodge is going to be compared quite a bit to the films of Ari Aster, particularly Hereditary, simply because it is an independent horror film that deals directly with the effects of intrafamilial trauma and how it manifests itself in ways beyond the scope of what traditional horror typically goes for. With an Earth-shaking lead performance from Keough and a nerve-shredding pace with a satisfying payoff, The Lodge and its expert knowledge of how to tear an audience apart from the inside out establishes itself in the lexicon of great contemporary horror films, up there with the greats.
In select theaters beginning February 7th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.