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Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s first narrative feature, Goodnight Mommy, was like an Architectural Digest version of a cabin-in-the-woods horror movie, with young twin brothers turning malevolent on the woman they believe has taken their mother’s place. The Austrian directing team’s English-language debut, The Lodge, puts another pair of siblings with a possibly vindictive purpose in another isolated house, where they play their part in the steady unraveling of their father’s new fiancee. However, while the filmmakers’ control of mood, menacing atmosphere and unsettling spatial dynamics remains arresting, their story sense grows shaky in a chiller that starts out strong but becomes meandering and repetitive.
The precision craft and sober intelligence on display in this Neon acquisition out of the Sundance Midnight section nonetheless should stoke curiosity among a discerning genre audience, along with a central performance from Riley Keough that keeps you wondering about the extent to which this childhood trauma survivor is victim or aggressor. The opening 15 minutes alone is must-see stuff.
Accomplished cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who shot Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, shapes another forbidding canvas of gloom and shadow, pierced by interludes of startling luminosity. The movie begins with a clever visual trick that catches the audience by surprise, slow-panning with a baleful gaze around the rooms of a timber-lined house before pulling back to reveal the setup as something else entirely. That it’s almost identical to a device used in last year’s Hereditary doesn’t make it less effective, especially once we later see the structure replicated elsewhere.
The gasp-inducing scene that follows soon after conveys that we’re in the hands of filmmakers who know exactly how and when to deploy a sudden shock. Though their parsimoniousness in that area becomes something of an issue.
Teenage Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and his younger sister Mia (Lia McHugh) stubbornly reject the attempts of their father, Richard (Richard Armitage), to make them accept his new fiancee, Grace (Keough), whose story was featured in a book he wrote about evangelical religious cults. Both kids are fiercely loyal to their loving mother, Laura (Alicia Silverstone), left behind by Richard. But when their dad suggests a Christmas retreat at the family’s lakeside lodge in the mountains, giving Grace some bonding time with the children while he returns to the city to wrap up work, they have no choice but to go along. Of course, that doesn’t mean they have to play nice.
Franz and Fiala knowingly toy with horror tropes, for instance when the fractured family unit arrives at the lodge and they go ice-skating on the frozen lake. It’s clear something bad is going to happen, though exactly what remains unpredictable until the moment it occurs, with seeds of doubt planted as to whether it was a complete accident or somehow orchestrated.
With that near-tragedy out of the way, the interactions between Grace and the sullen kids are just the average headaches of many soon-to-be-stepmothers — she attempts to befriend them while they respond with an unrelenting cold shoulder, ignoring her invitation to help with the holiday decorations and declining even to let her fix them snacks. Mia seems likely to thaw first, but there are thorns on her olive branch when she offers to show Grace the Christmas gift she and Aiden have made for their father. That Aiden’s animosity toward Grace may contain hints of sexual attraction is merely one more reason for the outsider to keep reaching for her anti-anxiety meds.
The less audiences know about what follows the better, but as things start going wrong with the house, supplies begin mysteriously disappearing and contact with the outside world is cut off, the wounds of increasingly unstable Grace’s past are reopened in vivid hallucinations, often while she’s sleepwalking. Sergio Casci’s script, written with the filmmakers, teases out uncertainties as to whether the children, Grace herself or some dreadful unseen force is responsible for the unnerving developments, throwing in playful hints of lurking evil at one point by having them watch another cabin-fever chiller, John Carpenter’s The Thing, on TV, switching channels to Jack Frost just to keep us guessing.
All this is very artfully done, with Bakatakis’ camera becoming a pernicious eye (what he can suggest with a simple corridor or staircase-landing shot is frightening), and the needling score of Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans layering unease into every scene. The restraint of Franz and Fiala in refusing to indulge in the usual jump scares and jarring sound effects is admirable in theory, but this is a movie that could have used more aggressive assaults on our nerves as it builds to its gruesome climax, with another cold dispatch to mirror the brutal blow of the opening. While The Lodge is filled with haunting images — a disoriented Grace waking up in a vast expanse of snow, or gazing out from a misted window at an evenly patterned field of snow-angel imprints, like the wintry version of crop circles — it becomes a little ponderous and wearing.
Still, this is classy, intelligent horror, and the actors keep you watching, especially Keough, who goes all in with fanatical-evangelical whack-job fervor once Grace becomes convinced of her need to repent and atone, impulses fed by the religious artifacts left in the house by the kids’ mother. (The actress’ father, Danny Keough, also pops up as an unwelcome specter from her past.)
Armitage is solid, if sidelined for much of the action, while Silverstone leaves a lingering impression in her brief scenes. McHugh nicely balances the suggestion of some more sinister intent beneath her preteen innocence, constantly clutching dolls that figure in the plot in ways that could be interpreted as either a reflection or a subversive influence on what’s occurring. And fans of 2017 horror blockbuster It will derive pleasure from seeing Martell (credited in that earlier film as Jaeden Lieberher) in another creepy scenario, this time where he may be as much creating the danger as susceptible to it.
Production companies: Hammer, FilmNation Entertainment
Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone, Danny Keough
Directors: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Screenwriters: Sergio Casci, Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Producers: Simon Oakes, Aliza James, Aaron Ryder
Executive producers: Ben Browning, Alison Cohen, Milan Popelka, Brad Zimmerman, Marc Schipper, Xavier Marchand
Director of photography: Thimios Bakatakis
Production designer: Sylvain Lamaitre
Costume designer: Sophie Lefebvre
Music: Daniel Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Editor: Michael Palm
Casting: Dixie Chassay
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Sales: Endeavor Content
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