Why The Lodge is One of This Year’s Horror Standouts

The directors and star of The Lodge on making a true chiller, and how anxiety can 'seduce' an audience into facing tough truths.

Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh in The Lodge
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The Lodge is the latest entry in the ongoing horror renaissance that has been happening in cinema for the better part of 10 years now. The movie follows a divorced father named Richard (Richard Armitage, The Hobbit) who is trying to take care of his two children (It’s Jaeden Martell and newcomer Lia McHugh) after a shocking tragedy leaves them without their mother.

When Richard has to return to work, he leaves the two siblings in the care of his new girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough, Logan Lucky) at the family’s isolated winter lodge, in the hope that they will get to know each other before he returns for Christmas. But Grace–who has a haunted past of her own–and the kids soon find themselves at odds with each other and at the mercy of forces they may not be able to control.

Like so many of the outstanding horror films we’ve seen over the past few years, The Lodge is not what it appears to be at first. The film and story play with your empathy and allegiance while ultimately telling a genuinely disturbing tale of family dynamics twisted and damaged by a series of bad choices. The movie is the first English language feature from Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, who shocked audiences in 2014 with their debut, the harrowing Goodnight Mommy (also a film about a family facing catastrophe).

The Lodge (co-written by the directors and Sergio Casci) is a production of Hammer Films, the legendary genre studio that was resurrected more than a decade ago and has generated a small but impressive slate of new horror movies since, including Let Me In (2010) and The Woman in Black (2012). Den of Geek started with the Hammer connection when we sat down to interview the directors and Keough about their unsettling new film, which stays with you long after you’ve left the theater.

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Den of Geek: I read that you got sent this script by Hammer and I’m wondering, having worked sort of in the genre space now for two films, did the Hammer name mean something to you when you saw that? Did you watch Hammer films growing up?

Severin Fiala: Of course. We were so excited. I mean we hoped so much that the script wouldn’t suck because we got many, many scripts. Usually the way Hollywood works obviously is they think you’re this type of filmmaker, they only send you this type of script style and they somehow thought we were like the world’s leading expert in twin movies. So they only send us scripts with twins and we felt, okay, we’re not going to do any of this because it’s boring just doing the same thing over and over again. And then we got this script which said ‘Untitled Hammer Horror Movie’ and we prayed that it would be good and we liked it.

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You also wanted to do some work on it yourselves. Did it change a lot as you worked on it?

Veronika Franz: I mean it was very playful, which is what we kind of connected to. It was playing with the audience and playing also with expectations of genre cinema and film history in a way. But you know, we have a very distinctive way of making films and seeing films, and we have a certain idea of how it should look.

We are also not so much into dialogue. We always tried to find the scene where nobody would talk instead of having dialogue. So one of our goals would be a silent movie actually one day [Laughs]. So this is very kind of specific and no screenwriter can fulfill this kind of expectations. That’s why we always have to take the script and make it our own in a way, to create some more atmosphere as we like to see it in cinema.

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Severin Fiala: Yeah, Sergio, he didn’t specifically write it for us, so we just read it and wanted to make it our own. I think that’s a thing only we can do and I think it was hard for Sergio because he’s a master in writing dialogue and it was super funny.

Riley, did you watch Goodnight Mommy and then run the other way in horror?

Riley Keough: I watched Goodnight Mommy and then met them and then the contrast between the film and them was like, “Oh, this is going to be weird.” It just seemed like it would be an interesting experience.

What attracted you to this script when you saw it and to this character of Grace?

Riley Keough: I think there’s a part of me that’s always attracted to things at the time that are things that I feel like I need to play for whatever reason. I don’t know what that is. That’s the part that doesn’t really make sense. But whether that’s to get it out of me or try something I haven’t tried or a lot of the time it’s doing things that I feel will be challenging. And when I read this, I have never done a film where I walk away from it and go, that was easy, you know? That’s how I like to work.

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And so when I read this, I was excited that I wasn’t totally sure where it was going. That’s always nice when you read scripts because most of the time you know exactly what’s going to happen when you read them. And then second of all, she was just obviously a very complicated person. That felt challenging to me and like something that I wanted to do.

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You’ve said something to the effect that playing a role like this actually can bring out some anxieties in yourself as well. Is that something that you kind of have to struggle with while you’re playing the role or do you make it work for you?

Riley Keough: Well, I struggle with anxiety every day, so it kind of depends. It gets triggered by random stuff, I don’t even know. So I think definitely trying to delve in and play somebody for whom that is taking over their entire mind was a little scary. But weirdly when I’m controlling it and I’ve decided that’s what I’m going to do, I’m in control and therefore it didn’t control me for whatever reason.

Did you do any research into the psychology of cult members and cult membership?

Riley Keough: They had a list of films to watch and specific groups to look into. And I watched a bunch of documentaries. I spoke with some people who had similar experiences and I just read as much as I could. To me the part that was really disturbing was the mass suicide, so that was something that I was really fixated on–like how that would manifest in a human being to be a part of something that extreme.

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So I watched documentaries and did as much as I could. And then of course I have a little bit to contribute as far as mental health goes because I do have some experience with those things. So it was combining all of that information, my own experience with anxiety, and kind of trying to do justice to somebody that would’ve gone through something like that.

What were the qualities that Riley brought from the perspective of a director?

Veronika Franz: I think what we really liked about Riley was that she was open to going on this journey with us together. We tried to shoot in sequence, so we tried to hold hands and go forward towards the abyss as far as we could, which helped the whole development of the character and the whole development of the story. As we kind of went forward with the story with her altogether in this kind of house in the middle of nowhere, I think we achieved more than we expected.

You shot everything in a real lodge. Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of doing that? Also, did you try and keep the mood sustained on the set when you were not shooting, or did you try to lighten things up a little bit?

Severin Fiala: I think, generally, when it comes to all the aspects of filmmaking we think starting from something real and keeping it as real as possible is the way we would go for. So we felt as many real things we can include, weather, a real house, real surroundings, real cold, it’s going to really help to film to make it feel authentic and real.

Veronika Franz:  At one point we even turned down the heating so that the house would be really cold. We tried to make it as real as possible.

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Severin Fiala: Also for example, for one of the weirdest locations, this cross-shaped house, that’s also actually a real place built like a memorial site for someone’s father who died in this spot. So they built this weird house and we saw that and we felt we needed to include this. I mean, it was not in the script obviously, a place like that, but we felt okay, but it’s there, it’s real and it’s so special. So we need to find a way of having it in our film.

Veronika Franz:  I don’t know if this is the correct word for it, but we like intuitive actors and actresses. We like when they are there, and they don’t pretend. They are there at the moment. And I think Riley is really great at that. She and the kids shared this “in the moment” thing. Actually we haven’t experienced it in Austria, at that level of quality or that perfection.

Riley Keough: It’s an easy thing to do when there’s nothing around you.

Actors by their nature have to be open to each other. Is that easier in some way with kids because they don’t have all the emotional armor that we adults wear?

Riley Keough: So much easier and so much more fun. It’s kids and it’s non-professional actors that is the most fun because they’re not in their head at all and they’re super just in the moment. That’s so fun to work with. It’s spontaneous, and things might not happen the way they just happened on the previous take. And that’s where I have the most fun. So yeah, children, animals, dogs, non-professional actors.

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Severin Fiala: People say in film school never shoot with kids and with animals.

Riley Keough: And it’s the most fun.

Severin Fiala: The opposite is true.

Veronika Franz:  Because you get something you don’t expect. Those are true moments you can get and I think cinema and film is about that.

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For the three of you, as an actor and as filmmakers, what do you find most interesting about working in the genre space?

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Veronika Franz:  We always say, because you can under the cover of a suspenseful kind of entertaining film, you can address issues, taboos or dark themes of society you would not maybe want to see in cinema if it would be a documentary.

Severin Fiala: Who would want to watch a film with the scenes about trauma and loss and grief and stuff? People think, okay, I’m not going to watch if it makes me sad or I don’t want to see this right now. But if it’s labeled as a horror film and if it’s in fact thrilling and entertaining to a certain degree, people will watch it. And that’s seducing people to watch something they would normally close their eyes from. That’s what we like.

Veronika Franz: I think the really great horror movies, they are like that actually. So they address fears and make them universal, because people share fears. I think if you talk to people about what they’re afraid of, it’s very similar.

Riley Keough: I mean my answers are probably their answers, but also when I’m watching scary movies, it’s a break because it’s worse than my life. You know? In the same way that life can be tough and people want to escape, there are extreme versions of that and horror is one of those.

I think it’s the same thing with Disney movies. It’s a total drastic change from reality. I think that’s a difference between watching a film that’s like reality and then watching something that’s an intensified version like horror or fantasy, or something to where it totally makes you escape. If I’m having a really shitty time and I put on a regular film about regular people, I’ll probably not pay attention. But if I’m having a really bad week and I put on something really fucking scary, it’s like for a minute I’m like, oh my God, at least I’m not being chased down a hallway by 10 monsters and murdered. It’s kind of a good way to escape.

The Lodge is out in theaters this Friday, Feb. 7.

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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye