When I went to the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, I attended a midnight screening of what would end up being one of my favorite films of that year, Hereditary (2018). I am a huge fan of psychological horror, when it is done well. So, as you can guess, my excitement was through the roof as I sat down this year for the world premiere midnight screening of The Lodge, co-directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, who brought us Goodnight Mommy back in 2014. That film, which didn’t get under my skin until its horrific and devastating third act, proves the directors have a unique ability to explore the horrors of grief in surprising and unsettling ways. With The Lodge, they continue and expand upon this exploration of grief, this time with a firmer grasp of tension and a sustained, ever-increasing dread that lingers long after the credits roll.
The film opens with some questionably foreboding images of a dollhouse, which Aidan and Mia (Jaiden Lieberher and Lia McHugh) play with in their room. Tensions are high in the family, as their parents, Richard and Laura (Richard Armitage and Alicia Silverstone), are in the process of going through a divorce, with a soon-to-be stepmom, Grace (Riley Keough), now entering the picture. Aidan and Mia are not fond of Grace, blaming her for the separation of their mom and dad. Richard decides that it’d be good to take the kids and Grace to a remote lodge for the holidays, in the hopes that it will bring everyone closer together (spoiler alert: it doesn’t). After Richard has to return home for work and a snowstorm arrives, bizarre things begin happening at the lodge, forcing the trauma of Grace’s sinister past to come between her and her prospective stepchildren.
Much like their previous film, The Lodge sees Fiala and Franz playing with perspective, re-configuring our understanding of the situation (as well as where our empathy lies) with each passing scene. Much of the mystery of the narrative surrounds the character of Grace, who begins the film as an antagonist of sorts. We see her through the eyes of the children, with the directors wisely choosing to give the audience ample time to understand the kids’ perception of her before she even appears onscreen.
These preconceived notions about Grace are what fuel much of the suspense, and it is a testament to Riley Keough’s wonderfully enigmatic performance that I constantly worry about and question her intentions. She plays Grace with an off-putting, quiet stillness, slowly but surely revealing the tormented soul within. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from her yet. The acting is uniformly great, with young actors Lieberher and McHugh avoiding the “children in horror” tropes we commonly see in this genre; they make Aidan and Mia feel like real kids, so that when conflict brews between them and their father, or them and Grace, it feels genuine and never over-the-top.
Mood and atmosphere are the name of the game here, with Fiala and Franz using all the cinematic tools to get the audience squirming in their seats. The use of music and sound (and especially silence) heightens tension to an almost unbearable degree, so that when scenes get really quiet, you can practically hear the racing heartbeats in the crowd. The close-ups in this film are also incredibly unnerving, emphasizing the sense of paranoia felt within Grace. One scene, in which Grace has an escalating argument with Aidan, cuts between a medium shot of Aidan and an extreme close-up of Grace, creating an effect that I can only describe as undeniably uncomfortable. Lensed by Thimios Bakatakis, who the directors ironically handpicked for his relatively small experience in the horror genre, The Lodge is extremely well-shot, capturing the isolation of the lodge’s location and a sense of trapped claustrophobia within its walls.
The Lodge will undoubtedly be compared to last year’s Hereditary, from the intense family drama to the religious undertones and creepy dollhouses. But, Fiala and Franz are mining different thematic territory here, and their perspective-shifting, snowball effect of a story helps to differentiate from that film. If anything, the isolated, snowy setting and surreal psychological terror in The Lodge is more reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). All I can say is that The Lodge totally deserves to be said in the same sentence as that horror classic; right now, I can’t think of higher praise.