Horror Film Lives Up To Its Sundance Hype
It happens every year. A horror film by a little-known filmmaker comes charging out of the gate, capturing the hearts and minds of festival goers at Sundance or SXSW. And the buzz only grows as the film builds a head of steam on the festival circuit. In 2018, it was Ari Aster’s debut film, Hereditary. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, was the runaway hype train of 2017. Robert Egger’s The Witch dominated the early months of 2015. In 2014, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook ran neck-and-neck with David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows for the most anticipated horror film of that year.
So, now in 2019, that mantle has been laid upon the shoulders of The Lodge, the new release from director Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy) and writer Sergio Casci. Sure Jordan Peele’s latest (Us) and Robert Egger’s new Cannes darling (The Lighthouse) and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale are getting a lot of buzz. But they are all follow-ups to their respective breakout films. The Lodge is this year’s version of the Little Horror Engine That Could, and I’m pleased to report it totally lives up to the hype. It leveled the audience at the 2019 Overlook Film Festival and deserves to find a warm reception at the box office from horror fans.
As the film opens, Richard (Richard Armitage) wants his children to accompany him on a trip to their annual winter retreat. However, this year the agenda is a bit different than in years past. Richard and his wife, Laura (Alicia Silverstone) are close to finalizing their divorce, and Richard wants his two children to meet Grace (Riley Keough), the woman he is dating who seems to be the front runner to become his kids’ stepmother once the ink is dry on the divorce papers.
Richard plans on leaving his kids at the lodge with Grace while he finishes up some work in the city, and he’ll join the trio in time for Christmas. He envisions days of bonding experiences as they decorate the house and get to know each other better. What could possibly go wrong with three people stuck in a confined space who may have a bit of animosity or trepidation toward one another? Plenty (if you know your horror history).
The Lodge has fun tipping a sly wink to the winter isolation films that have come before it. The children kill time watching John Carpenter’s The Thing until Grace suggests that less disturbing entertainment might be more appropriate. And it’s no coincidence that Grace’s dog, Grady, shares the name of the bartender in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. He’s a four-legged nod to Danny Torrance’s little undead playmates, the Grady twins.
During the first act of the film, you may wonder if Severin Fiala and Sergio Casci have leaned too much on Hereditary as an influence. There’s a dollhouse with family members depicted in miniature. The lead female has a history of sleepwalking and mental instability. The score relies on familiar plucked strings and dissonant chords. (However, for the sake of fairness, I should point out that it can take years to get a project from page to screen, so these similarities may simply be coincidences.)
But have no fear (pun intended), as the film moves beyond its first act premise, it takes some clever twists and turns and enters its own unique territory. The entire third act is one stellar payoff after another. All the little character details that accumulate along the way become instrumental in the outcome of the narrative. You could accuse the filmmakers of simply showing off if it all didn’t work so damn well.
As with most satisfying horror films, the story is grounded by a trio of compelling performances. Riley Keough gives a haunting and heartbreaking performance as Grace, a young woman with significant trauma in her past who wants nothing more than to ingratiate herself to her fiance’s kids. Keough is fast becoming the female Robert Pattinson, choosing one interesting role after another and refusing to simply rely on her good looks to dominate the screen. Her credits include American Honey, Logan Lucky, It Comes at Night, Hold the Dark and Under the Silver Lake as well as her riveting performance in the Starz series The Girlfriend Experience.
While Keough may be the single best thing The Lodge has going for it, the performances of the two child actors aren’t far behind. Jaeden Martell as Aiden and Lia McHugh as Mia give stunning, nuanced performances. The audience never doubts that they are devoted siblings whose loyalty to one another cannot be broken by Grace nor by their own father. Every glance and every gesture they make expose their collective past and build the “us versus her” tension that courses through the film.
I could give countless examples of how The Lodge builds its growing sense of dread. I could also point out the many ways that the production design and cinematography create an atmosphere dripping with tension. There’s just one problem: getting into specifics is going to put us in Spoiler Territory, and I don’t want to risk giving away the powerful plot beats of the film. Suffice it to say that The Lodge is one of the best horror films of the year. It’s going to grace many a Top Ten list in December. See it as soon as you can. You won’t be sorry.