For years now, the Sundance Film Festival has been a staging ground to announce exciting new voices in horror cinema. The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch, and Hereditary all either got their start or built hellish momentum among the snowy slopes of Park City in recent fests past. So perhaps it’s fitting then that the clear heir apparent in 2019 is a film all about what old terrors can thaw in one’s mind when the ground outside freezes over.
As directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s follow-up to Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge is another unsettling sleight of hand about the constricting nature of familial bonds, especially when there is no actual familiarity between you and the person at the other end of a rope. A tense exercise of claustrophobia in a snowy outpost, the film stands on the shoulders of horror royalty while plowing its own path to memorable disturbance, in no small part thanks to a tour de force performance by Riley Keough.
As the interloper in a collapsing family, Keough’s Grace is no stranger to tragedy in The Lodge. Many years ago, she was the lone child survivor of a suicide cult that was shepherded to the great hereafter by her dogmatic father. It is that very extreme ordeal that brought her to the attention of Richard (Richard Armitage), an author who told her story—and then left his wife for the younger Grace. Granted we don’t see any of this; it is merely inferred when Richard’s estranged wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone) suddenly kills herself in a moment of jealous despair in the film’s opening—leaving behind grief, anger, and fear for her and Richard’s children Aidan (Jaeden Lieberher) and Mia (Lia McHugh).
Thus things are already icy before Richard suggests that Aidan and Mia get to know Grace better by spending Christmas with her in the family’s remote cabin in the mountains. Alone. And without a car. (Dad will come up on the 25th). Yet as earnestly as Grace tries to connect with these kids, there is a gnawing anxiety well before the snow storm rages outside, and Grace and the children hear what sounds like footsteps walking around the house. Are they really alone? Is Grace fully able to be trusted considering she’s on medication for lingering mental trauma? Can the wrathful kids? It’s all an open question before the power goes out and the food, cellphones, and Grace’s beloved dog go missing. Those things, plus Grace’s medication.
It is easy to draw a parallel between The Lodge and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in no small part because both films rely on an enormous performance to ensnare its audience in a feeling of snowbound confusion. It is an open question throughout the film’s running time just exactly what is real and what might Grace be imagining, as well as if her hallucinations are actually supernatural—an engagement gift from a mother who still wants to spend Christmas with the family. However, the true ingenuity of the film is not its anecdotal similarities to Kubrick’s maddening chiller; it is how sleekly it reinvents the tropes of Gothic horror for modern indie sensibilities.
With a slow boil from ice to fire that is increasingly familiar for fans of recent elevated horror, Fiala and Franz have found a covert way to rework the queasy disorientation of Gaslight for a new generation. It’s obvious someone is tormenting the characters in the film and making one or more parties think they’re mad, but just who is gaslighting whom? Perhaps Silverstone’s ghost really is walking these halls and forcing Grace to think on her sins of coveting another woman’s husband; mayhaps it’s the children enraged by this other woman who, for all her kindness, is arguably responsible for their mother’s death; or just maybe Grace really is simply losing her mind after a lifetime of latent guilt? She doesn’t need ghosts to hear the echo of her father’s commanding threat: repent.
The emotional confusion of not being able to trust any of the characters while nevertheless watching them all suffer creates a psychological torment that is a bit like three-card monte. You are no longer fully aware of where you are, but you have a sinking feeling that all will be lost when the game’s over, and that bucket of dread the movie is built around boils over.
And it surely does thanks in a major way to Keough. No stranger to indie thrillers (she previously appeared in It Comes at Night and Hold the Dark), Keough finally has one she can dominate all on her own. When at last introduced as a sincerely warm and kindhearted woman who loves her dog and wants to connect with these children, Fiala and Franz have nevertheless given viewers reasons to be wary. Always kept off-screen or behind a frosted glass until the moment she’s in the car headed to the lodge with the kids, Grace is provided with what Orson Welles dubbed the “star entrance” 15 minutes into the film, at which point it becomes hers. Hence her downward fall from well-meaning protagonist to possible antagonist will likely be horror’s greatest special effect this year.
The rest of the picture is equally well-designed with vast white landscapes taking on a foreboding quality even in the early moments, and long stately tracking shots finding sinister symmetry in each empty room. Ultimately more of a drama treading toward a tragic fall as opposed to a traditional horror movie, The Lodge will not please everyone with its ambiguity that is carried out to the very final shot. Less explosive, in the end, than Hereditary or The Witch, it is easy to predict The Lodge will divide some audiences. But its pressure-cooker conceit and devastating paranoia casts a subtle spell. This is a film that will deny you knowing up from down, right from wrong; it is like living in the delirium created by a chill, and it’s in that very daze where truly wicked thoughts can fester.