'Tales From the Lodge': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of SXSW Film Festival
Scattershot.

Old friends entertain each other with scary stories in Abigail Blackmore's horror-comedy anthology film.

You can't accuse director Abigail Blackmore of being selfish. The end credits of her new British horror comedy anthology film featuring vignettes as related by different characters, reveal that each episode was actually directed by its central performer. That perhaps accounts for the hit-and-miss nature of Tales From the Lodge, which recently received its world premiere at SXSW. To be fair, anthology films are almost always hit or miss, but this one features far more of the latter.

The film is infused with very British mordant humor in its depiction of a weekend reunion between five old college friends, all pushing forty, and one extra guest. The group has gathered at an isolated cabin in the woods to scatter the ashes of their mutual friend who committed suicide three years earlier, placing them at the same lake where he drowned himself. The group includes Joe (Mackenzie Cook) and Martha (Laura Fraser), who are dealing with the fact that Joe has recently been diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition; Emma (Sophie Thompson) and Russell (Johnny Vegas), thrilled just to be away from their young children for the weekend; and perennial bachelor Paul (Dustin Demri-Burns), who has brought along his much younger girlfriend Miki (Kelly Wenham). Miki's presence proves infinitely irritating to Martha, who makes no effort to hide her disdain for the interloper.

Since scattering ashes only takes so long, the group wiles away the time by relaxing, drinking and, you guessed it, telling scary tales to keep each other amused. Each major character delivers one with a personal bent, such as Joe being subjected to horrific medical tests at the hands of a mad doctor and Paul making the mistake of lending his car to the wrong person. The stories revolve around such things as demonic possession, ghosts and zombies of the slow-moving, "classic kind."

While the horror vignettes provide some chills and even more laughs, the wrap-around story, so reminiscent of The Big Chill and taking up most of the pic's running time, proves less interesting. The eventual revelation that the characters are actually involved in a horrific scenario of their own feels simultaneously undercooked and over the top. The banter is strained more often than not, as evidenced by this would-be witticism: "Let's stop talking about death and scatter some ashes, shall we?" That the wind blows the ashes back into everyone's faces is yet another example of the stereotypical humor. The pacing is far too sluggish throughout, a fatal flaw in movies of this type.

Nevertheless, Tales From the Lodge has its moments, and the talented ensemble, many of them veterans of British television comedies, make the most of them. Director-screenwriter Blackmore, making her feature debut, also provides some arresting visuals, such as a spider's eye-view as it is being stomped on. The end result is a film that's just good enough to make you wish that it had been better.

Production company: Hook Pictures
Cast: Mackenzie Crook, Dustin Demri-Burns, Laura Fraser, Sophie Thompson, Johnny Vegas, Kelly Wenham, Adam Staughan
Director-screenwriter: Abigail Blackmore
Producers: Ed Barratt, Richard Wylie
Executive producers: Peter Bates, Ian Berg, Julian Bird
Director of photography: David Mackie
Production designer: Mike McLoughlin
Editors: Agnieszka Liggett, Edel McDonnell
Composer: Warren Bennett
Costume designer: Ryan Hooper
Casting: Lauren Evans
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Midnighters)

93 minutes