Fantastic Fest: THE LODGE is a Beautifully Bleak Horror Film

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s second feature is some ice-cold, nerve-shredding cinema

A family succumbs to madness after a blizzard traps them in their mountain hunting lodge. It’s a classic horror premise, with variations employed to great effect by directors from Stanley Kubrick to John Carpenter. The Lodge is the latest entry in this chilly canon, but what sets the film apart is how writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala and writer Sergio Casci involve The Lodge’s unwitting audience in an unbearably tense game of confirming and subverting expectations.

Grace (Riley Keough) just wants things to get better. She’s engaged to Richard (Richard Armitage), the psychiatrist who not only helped Grace move on from her childhood in a suicide cult, but turned her experience into a series of bestselling books. Their relationship, however, had its hand in the tragic end of Richard’s previous marriage — which Richard’s children Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) still resent Grace for. In the hopes of patching things up, Richard drops the new family at his hunting lodge for Christmas. Richard plans to come back and join them once he takes care of some work in the city, and Grace looks forward to finally bonding with Aidan and Mia. But this idyllic stay soon becomes a nightmare when a blizzard hits and the family’s clothes and food go missing. Is Grace having a relapse? Is this just one of the children’s games? Or is there a more sinister presence hiding within the shadows of the lodge?

From its shocking opening scenes on, The Lodge is a film that plays with the contextual clues an audience feeds on to form opinions about characters. Alicia Silverstone appears to be the main character — until she isn’t; it’s actually a film about Aidan and Mia, who dread Grace’s delayed arrival. Until the film arrives at its titular location, Grace is seen at a distance, through frosted windows and archival footage of her involvement with the cult. Before we even meet her, Grace is as much of a villain to us as she is to the children who hate and fear her. To that end, the children’s passive and intentional cruelty towards her feels oddly justified — until it isn’t. It’s a film whose perspective is endlessly shifting, leaving its audience on tenterhooks throughout each scene until the next subtly climactic action that reorients our worldview.

It’s a strange effect — even though The Lodge invites us to invest ourselves in the three leads (and boy, do we), there’s a sinister undercurrent that nothing they say or do can be trusted. It’s one aspect of the film’s stellar performances by Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, and Lia McHugh. All three are tasked with the challenge of portraying characters that must come across as both victims and masterminds, a fine line which all actors walk well. Keough arguably has the most difficult job of the three, given how the film’s first third is so heavily biased against her. But once she’s actually on-screen, Keough imbues Grace with a fragile resolution reminiscent of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Grace comes across as a woman who’s salvaged some humanity out of weathering the unspeakable, and must suddenly contend with being a part of a family that wants nothing to do with her. As much as they engender our sympathy, Martell and McHugh are wonderfully insidious as the children — in the wake of tragedy and clearly forced to grow up faster than others, there’s the sense that Aidan and Mia are capable of doing whatever they can to survive, no matter who or what may get in their way.

As The Lodge ratchets up the tension, perspective shifts once more from unpredictability to an unstoppable feeling of dread and anxiety. Rather than save its reveals for the last few minutes, The Lodge telegraphs its reveals early on, reveling in the later consequences of the characters’ hidden motivations. As a result, The Lodge goes from deeply unsettling to truly terrifying…not because we don’t know what might happen next, but because we do — as much as we wish we didn’t. One might argue that’s a sign of how The Lodge really respects its audience: it never presumes to know more than its audience, instead mining its horror out of the slow confirmation of the audience’s worst fears, becoming a gut wrenching watch long before the film’s final act. Even more so than the directors’ previous film Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge is an unapologetically, relentlessly bleak as hell watch, one made all the more memorable by the commitment of the talent both behind and in front of the camera.

The Lodge had its Texas Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2019. NEON will release the film in theaters February 7, 2020.

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