English film critic Robin Wood once defined the horror film as one that presents a scenario of normality under threat from a monster. This concise theory undoubtedly holds for many of the most popular and enduring horror films to date – Jaws has a man-eating shark, Alien has a hulking phallic beast, and even something as vaguely psychological as The Shining has the menacing ghosts of the Overlook Hotel. And yet, there are always exceptions to the rule, and many of the best horror films of the past decade challenge this hypothesis with unsettling stories of ordinary people coming under psychological and physical attack from something that can hardly be deemed a monster: themselves. While at a glance films like The Witch, It Comes At Night, and even Hereditary all have monsters of some sort – a witch, an apocalyptic plague, a satanic cult – what makes all of them so frightening is their presentation of psychological realism destabilized and discarded by trauma, paranoia, and insanity.
The Lodge – the follow-up to Austrian directing duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala‘s occasionally creepy but flawed Goodnight Mommy – is perhaps one of the most clear-cut counterexamples to Wood’s formula. It’s a film that completely lacks monsters, ghosts, and even any particularly evil human beings. Where is the threat, then? What could possibly make the film scary? Rather than articulate its real-life anxieties through a supernatural avatar, The Lodge opts to instead wallow directly in its characters’ fears. At its core, the film’s traumas – the destruction of childhood innocence, divorce, and suicide – are the monsters of The Lodge. Even without an imaginary expression of those anxieties (as found in something like Hereditary or The Witch), and despite an abundance of questionable character decisions made to advance the plot, the film manages to be a highly unsettling depiction of ordinary people imploding under the unbearable weight of their psychic scars.
Much like Franz and Fiala’s prior film, The Lodge largely concerns the actions of two children, Aidan (Jaeden Martell of IT and Knives Out) and Mia (Lia McHugh). A few months after their mother’s suicide, the two siblings’ father (Richard Armitage) proposes a holiday retreat into the mountains so that they can finally get to know their soon-to-be stepmother Grace (Riley Keough). The two want nothing less than to spend the Christmas season shacked up with the sole company of the woman they view responsible for their mother’s death, but since their father is occupied with his job they have little choice. The only thing they do know about Grace – that she was the sole survivor of a fanatical Christian suicide cult when she was a child – is far from reassuring.
Almost as soon as their father leaves, there’s an uncomfortable tension in the air. Neither child wants to spend time with Grace, and Grace doesn’t know how to break through to them. After falling asleep to the warmth of a gas heater and the comforting sounds of John Carpenter‘s The Thing, the trio wake up the next morning to find their power out, food gone, and phones dead. From there, the film gradually layers on a sickly feeling of dread with a series of seemingly inexplicable mysteries. Who ransacked the cabin? Are they actually dead? Nothing is certain, and to make matters even more dire, Grace’s only anchor to reality – her antipsychotic medication she takes to manage her childhood trauma – is also missing.
The Lodge marks a dramatic step up in atmosphere for Franz and Fiala. Like Goodnight Mommy, the film begins in a state of grounded realism, but then departs that oppressive mundanity for a more traditional horror ambience of mysterious unease. Although it sprints towards insanity a bit too eagerly for my taste (a rare case where an extra 20 minutes could have actually helped with pacing), the film owes much of its lasting creepiness to frequent Yorgos Lanthimos-DP Thimios Bakatakis, whose anxiously slow zooms and pans evoke the The Shining and Bakatakis’ previous work on The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Further adding texture is the film’s eerily sparse sound design, which contributes a fairly standard horror score (something Goodnight Mommy conspicuously lacked), along with winter winds, mysterious whispers, and creepy Christian hymns.
The film’s ominous atmosphere also distracts substantially from the relative absurdity of its plot, which thankfully doesn’t collapse under an unnecessary third act plot twist the way Goodnight Mommy does. It does have something of a twist – and I won’t spoil it here – but it comfortably integrates into the film’s shifting point-of-view and feels remarkably natural despite its nonsensicality. Critics of the film will likely complain that its characters don’t behave like real people, that their decisions are motivated more by the plot than realistic psychology. Maybe so, but when have horror movies ever featured logical decision making? Some of the script certainly doesn’t hold up to closer inspection, but a surprising amount of it actually does. In any case, its charismatic creepiness far outweighs the value (at least in my mind) of a leak-proof narrative.
What ultimately sold me on The Lodge, outside of its purely stylistic merits, is the pessimistic tragedy at its core. Both Grace and the two siblings are haunted by immensely traumatic experiences – in Grace’s case, an emotionally scarring suicide cult; for the children, the death of their mother. Everything that happens to them is directly correlated to these incidents, and what makes the film so ultimately chilling is the realization that behind their catastrophic actions is not malice but confused anger towards what has happened to them and fear over how to deal with the aftermath. Much like Trey Edward Shults‘ It Comes At Night, The Lodge extracts its horror from good people doing terrible things to one another, but there’s an even sadder undercurrent of tragedy here because these characters have much less agency over their decisions – Grace suffers from a serious mental illness and the children can’t help but lack the mature judgement of an adult.
While the prospects of The Lodge joining the ranks of instant indie-horror classics are doubtful – it’s slightly too derivative of its contemporaries, not quite as distinct, and too sparse with its overt scares to fare well with general audiences – it’s nevertheless a frightening little film that will sneak up on you before you know it. It hasn’t haunted me the way Hereditary has (few films do), but I nevertheless find myself still thinking about its bleak ending several days later. If that’s not a sign of a successful horror film, I don’t know what is.