Filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala made a major mark on the genre world with their 2014 film Goodnight Mommy, with The Lodge serving as their English-language feature-film horror debut. Partnered with Hammer Studios, a once-prolific production house known for delivering gothic, atmospheric masterpieces, this snowbound thriller first debuted at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2019 and, after a series of release date delays, is finally set to be unleashed on American audiences. While a horror film earning multiple delays rarely bodes well for a film, in the case of The Lodge, it would seem these postponements were likely due to the studio knowing that the audience wouldn't be emotionally prepared for the unrelenting and deliberately-paced descent into what humans are capable of doing to one another when left to their own devices.
After his attempts to finalize his divorce, Richard (Richard Armitage) hopes to introduce his new love, Grace (Riley Keough), to his kids Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) by heading to the family lodge for the holidays. When work calls Richard back to the city, Grace is tasked with watching over the kids, a task made all the more difficult by both kids making it a point to establish how much they miss their actual mom. Given Grace's complicated history of being the only survivor of a suicide cult, a series of setbacks begins a harrowing chain of events that challenges the impromptu stepmom to wonder if the kids are attempting to assert their dominance or if her past has come back to haunt her.
Much like they proved with Goodnight Mommy, Franz and Fiala have an impeccable control over how to string the audience along to make them question the reality of each situation. From one scene to the next, the viewer is led to believe that each catastrophic event is merely orchestrated by teen-aged brats who are attempting to protect their family, only for the following encounter to be too far-fetched for teens to have planned, as they would also be victims when the power goes out or heater becomes busted. Luckily, Franz and Fiala know that building towards a massive reveal would be far less exciting and less challenging for the viewer than to force us to grasp with the film's revelations, opting to address what is really going on while still in the second act, allowing the third act to plunge us even further into the depths of Hell, though we won't reveal whether that is meant figuratively or literally. This approach to the narrative proves that it isn't the destination that makes the film so effective, but it's the journey itself that is unsettling.
In addition to how they manipulate the narrative paranoia, Franz and Fiala establish a film that is both figuratively and literally chilling, as the sound design and cinematography will have audiences seeking any warmth that The Lodge robs us of. Merely 10 minutes into the movie, audiences witness a truly devastating sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film, offering only rare respites from the tension with endearing moments between the characters or hints at warmth and humanity. Not only is it evident across the many gorgeous, wintery landscapes, but we soon learn that it will take more than a fireplace to keep the unrelenting chill at bay.
Robbing a viewer of any glimmers of hope is an experience that horror fans are familiar with, though one of the drawbacks to The Lodge is that the experience is so unnerving, it's hard for us to connect with anyone other than Grace. Keough plays the character exquisitely, but her tortured religious history makes her by nature somewhat detached from more endearing qualities you'd seek in a protagonist, which extends to audiences as well. We can surely connect with Aidan and Mia to a degree, understanding the difficulties of coping with parents separating and subsequent grief, yet the ways in which they intentionally alienate Grace can also alienate viewers.
Recent years have seen the rise of the phrase "elevated horror" as a way of describing films that deliver much more than just buckets of blood to satiate audiences, instead delivering complex narratives and layered performances within a genre that often delivers experiences that appeal to the lowest common denominator. However, as this term attempts to elevate certain films, it instead diminishes the accomplishments of all films within the genre, while also implying this is a new concept. Films like Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and The Exorcist, in addition to countless Hammer Studios films, delivered audiences compelling dramas with horror influences for unsettling experiences, made all the more effective by the ways in which they bucked genre trends. While The Lodge is sure to be labeled with such a term, and does effectively mine a similar vein to The Babadook and Hereditary, attempting to concoct new labels that essentially equate to "horror movie without gore and constant jump-scares" does all films in the genre a disservice.
The Lodge is an arduous and unnerving narrative that denies the audience any real hint or hope of optimism, an experience that will surely appeal to audiences seeking a challenging work of art to escape superficial scares. While the film is undeniably effective, the distance that the characters keep between one another will extend to the viewer, resulting in some frustrations. Despite those small setbacks, Franz and Fiala continue to prove themselves as some of the most exciting voices in genre cinema as The Lodge is a punishing and perplexing journey into the unknown.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Lodge lands in theaters on February 7th.