In 2015, Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz dropped jaws and blew minds with their harrowing–and at points hilarious–debut narrative feature, Goodnight Mommy. Last year, they offered a fresh taste in terror with a vignette in the folklore-inspired horror anthology, The Field Guide To Evil. Now, this heralded Austrian pair of co-writers/co-directors is back with their much-anticipated English-language debut, The Lodge. And while this psychological thriller has plenty in common with their first film, the vibe is decidedly different.
The Lodge centers on a family in crisis. Following their parents’ messy split, angry teen Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and his heartbroken little sister Mia (Lia McHugh), aren’t remotely interested in getting to know their dad’s fiancée Grace (Riley Keough). But for the Christmas break, dad Richard (Richard Armitage) decides some alone time with their soon-to-be stepmom is essential. So, the foursome travels to a remote mountain lodge, where they might come together as a family. But work pulls Richard away, leaving his furious children in the care of the woman they see as a homewrecker. When bizarre things begin happening around the house, Grace and the kids will have to decide whether to band together or fall apart.
At first, it’s little things: door that seems to open on its own or a shadowy figure in a stairwell. But one morning, they awake to find the power is out, the pipes are frozen, and all of their personal effects, and Christmas decorations have disappeared, as has Grace’s dog. Is the house haunted? Does it have anything to do with Grace’s dark history with a suicide cult? Or is something even more strangely sinister at play in this place?
Like Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge is a horror-thriller set in one remote location, focusing on a family of three that’s dealing with loss in pretty horrific ways. But where their first film was presented through the perspective of the tow-headed twins who menace a bandaged woman they suspect isn’t really their mother, the latter is less clear in its perspective. Trailers would have you believe Grace is the center of this story. And once things start going weird, she does get the most screentime. But for the first act of the film, she’s almost a phantom, spotted only in glimpses or through fogged glass doors. The film begins with the kids’ mother (Alicia Silverstone), who is struggling to cope with the end of her marriage and her husband’s eagerness to move on with a new–and noticeably younger–bride. Then the focus shifts to Aidan and Laura, who agonize over this radical change in their lives. Then, Grace is finally introduced. Perhaps this shifting focus is intended to transition smoothly between the kids and Grace’s perspectives on what’s going on in the lodge. However, by not binding us to a side, The Lodge doesn’t snag at audience empathy like Goodnight Mommy did. So instead of feeling caught up in the suffocating confusion and terror these characters experience, I was more focused on hunting down clues. And unfortunately, the ones laid out in this twisted thriller are much easier to spot than in its predecessor.
The mystery of The Lodge is nowhere near as thrilling or shocking as the one in Goodnight Mommy. Which makes me wonder if these Austrian filmmakers are dumbing down their writing for American audiences. Still, I admire how Fiala and Franz experiment with tone here. In their first film, Goodnight Mommy is electric in tension for major swaths, then takes a deliciously jarring break for a weirdly comedic interlude involving some unexpected visitors. In The Lodge, Fiala and Franz abandon comedy and resist lacing in creepy cockroaches or body horror to make goosebumps rise. Instead, they take a more gothic approach, terrifying audiences by what’s unseen and uncertain.
The picturesque capturing of endless snowy forests creates an eerie environment that sends a chill into the theater. As Grace trembles looking out onto a sprawling frozen lake, you can almost feel the bite of frost in the air. And this cold creeps into the set design of the eponymous lodge, which is filled with hard lines, doggedly tidy rooms, and grimly Christian decorations of crosses and devotional portraits. To this, the cast adds their own chilliness. Martell (It: Chapter One, The Book of Henry) brings a cold edge as a teeth-grit teen, resistent to Grace’s attempts at kindness. McHugh’s big doe-eyes tremble with hurt, but flash with icy rage when she catches Grace casually borrowing her mother’s knitted cap. And then there’s Keough, who delivers a thoughtfully restrained performance that’s uniquely unnerving. Where women in gothic horror movies are often required one scene where they cry, rant and look like a hysterical loon, The Lodge handles its heroine differently. Grace doesn’t break down into tears; she lashes out, barging around the house, hunting down answers. And once she’s found them, her response is not explosive or showy, but strikingly ice cold. The Lodge is a film all about coldness, in setting, in tone, in emotion. Things grow colder and colder until they crack under pressure and cause irreparable damage.
In the end, The Lodge isn’t as shocking, scary, or satisfying as Goodnight Mommy. Yet it’s a solid sister film. Fiala and Franz unfurl a new family-horror that a bit predictable, yet gorgeous, grim, and unsettling in its execution. On a cold night — especially one spent with family — it could be perfectly chilling.
The Lodge makes its Texas Premiere at Fantastic Fest. It hits theaters February 7.