There’s nothing like a morbid secret to guarantee a horror film’s succulence, as long as the secret isn’t easily revealed by Occam’s razor. In The Lodge, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, back at it six years after Goodnight Mommy, pile secrets upon yet more secrets, but escalating secrecy muddles their story of resentment and psychosis instead of enhancing it. Worse, the answer to The Lodge’s mystery is the obvious one—and its most unsatisfying—thus proving the old Franciscan friar’s problem-solving principle while rendering fear inert.
Franz and Fiala share a wonderful eye for composition and spooky imagery, as well as a strong head on their joined shoulders for casting. Riley Keough, their lead, along with co-stars Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh, perform nicely under the genre’s conditions, sustaining their sense of discomfit in The Lodge’s meticulously curated visual design. This is the kind of horror movie that looks so physically, tangibly real that you might feel like reaching through the screen and brushing your fingers on the fireplace mantle, or lying down in the snow to make angels. Lacking the sturdy architecture of equally meticulous storytelling, details like these give The Lodge structure. If nothing else, they make it easier to overlook weird script-level choices.
Aidan (Martell) and Mia (McHugh), after losing their mom, Laura (Alicia Silverstone), in the movie’s opening ten minutes, go on a Christmas getaway with their dad, Richard (Richard Armitage), and his girlfriend, Grace (Keough), to the family’s remote lakeside cabin. It’s a tough sell for the kids: Laura shoots herself when Richard decides to finalize their divorce and marry Grace, which means that Aiden and Mia understandably have a few unresolved negative feelings about their dad’s new love. Of course, no sooner do they settle in than Richard is called away to work, and no sooner does he go than a snowstorm rolls in and leaves Aidan, Mia and Grace housebound with mounting anomalies hinting at a sinister presence in their midst.
Or not. Or maybe! The Lodge keeps its audience guessing, even though minimal guesswork is necessary to figure out who’s behind the missing holiday decorations, food and supplies, as well as the disappearance of Grace’s antipsychotics. Grace is the child of a long-dead cult leader who led his flock to mass suicide when she was 12; she’s also one of Richard’s former patients, though we’re deprived of further specifics. So be it. Grace’s history puts her under our suspicion as well as Aiden and Mia’s, as if they needed more reasons to distrust and disdain her. It doesn’t last: Franz and Fiala cede the stage to Grace’s point of view, which means suspicion flows downhill to the children. Grant that Grace is an unreliable narrator, what with her urgent need for medication, but the more The Lodge invests in her, the less dangerous she becomes—sort of.
When a character can’t tell delusion from reality, they might, for instance, be prone to reliving past traumas, which is scary on paper given the film’s elements of isolation from safety and civilization. But Franz and Fiala choose their perspective poorly. They know how to make “evil children” movies, but The Lodge isn’t, in its heart, about evil children or evil caretakers, much less evil spirits, which is the tantalizing possibility the film dangles in front of the audience before revealing the disappointing truth. The tease is achieved through a combination of home videos of Laura in better times, and repeated shots of a weathered portrait of the Virgin Mary, seemingly staring at Grace in judgment throughout the movie.
The idea of a scorned mother taking her vengeance from beyond the grave through psychological warfare, religious shame and canicide sounds wonderfully terrifying on paper. In practice, well, that’s another matter: The Lodge flirts with too many conceits before deciding on the least interesting of the bunch, which makes any build-up feel like wasted effort. At least the film looks sharp (if a little heavy on slow zooms as a primary tool for generating dread), but the atmosphere that Franz and Fiala maintain isn’t a replacement for thoughtful writing, and their visual inventions are undone by the secrets that inspire them.
Directors: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Writers: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala, Sergio Casci
Starring: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone
Release Date: February 7, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.