Arthouse horror is on a tear right now, and it’s no secret. One of the most inspiring movements in American cinema right now, modern classics like “Hereditary,” “Get Out,” “The Witch,” “It Follows,” et al. have reinvigorated a genre blunted by the cheap slasher films of the ’80s and ’90s and sparked something of a movement, thoughtful, emotionally bruising and sometimes glacially paced horror. Who knows, look back in 10 years, and cinema historians may find an even deeper correlation that we can see to our toxic, uncertain times, and this cinema of unease and collective trauma.
The latest addition to this current trend of arty dread—often slow, but freakish, psychologically traumatizing and formally audacious— is Veronika Franz and Severin Fiara‘s “The Lodge,” a deliberately quiet but meaty dissection of the complexities of motherhood and even faith, which continues many of the same themes the directing duo employed to chilling effect with their 2015 breakout “Goodnight Mommy.” Franz and Fiara seem to be fascinated by the thorny relationship between mother and child and, but this time, “The Lodge” tackles the complicated and emotionally delicate and fraught area of step-motherhood and surrogates, while making disquieting comments on religion and beliefs.
Soon-to-be-wed Grace (an eerily subtle Riley Keough) tries to step into the lives of her fiancé’s (Richard Armitage) two children, Aidan (Jaedan Lieberher) and Mia (Lia McHugh), but faces frosty challenges. The kids don’t quite like Grace, and blame her for their mother’s (Alicia Silverstone) severe depression, triggered by the news their father is getting remarried. Worse, Grace has some heavy baggage of her own, having barely escaped an Evangelical cult a few years back, which ended in the group’s mass suicide. Grace escaped at the last minute, but now takes a cocktail of medications to keep herself mentally upright.
Despite the kids’ resent and reluctance to accept their substitute mom, their father takes them to a remote holiday village for an attempted session of strained, and compulsory bonding. However, once a snowstorm hits, Dad must return to the city for business, and the estranged trio is snowed in. Worse, not only claustrophobically trapped together, they begin to experience strange and frighteningly inexplicable events that start happening around their lodge. The f*ckening of ‘Shining-like terrors begins.
Formally rigorous, this strikingly intimate film from Franz and Fiara scarcely features one jump scare; the entire drama is comprised of static and slow panning shots which create a sense of suffocating doom amidst the confined space. The interaction between Grace and the kids is kept at a minimum, the filmmakers opting instead for icy stares and awkward silences, which builds up anxiety, akin to a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. It might be headed for another poor Cinemascore with mainstream horror audiences looking to scream on a Friday night, but one must admire the filmmakers’ willingness to trust its audience’s intelligence and disavow familiar horror tropes.
Keough, a talented actress who has mostly concentrated on independent projects in her young but fascinating career, is stunning, especially as her character’s mental state starts to deteriorate when her medication goes missing. Li and McHugh are even more impressive and remove any early doubts you may have about child actors in such complexly written roles. These young kids seem to understand their character’s scars and motivations intuitively, and this movie wouldn’t work without their expertly nuanced portrayals.
When the film finally arrives at its provoking and unusually violent climax, it does feel like a slight disservice to the slowly-revealed terror that appeared prior. And yet, it still shocks, and Franz and Fiara prove once again they are two of the best in the biz at unsettling cinema. Appropriately frosty and aloof, “The Lodge” is a meditative plumbing of the darkest parts of the human psyche, our vulnerabilities, and self-doubts and it’s these personal fears that resonate loudly. And what it has to say about trust and family? If “The Lodge” isn’t already scary enough as it is, the spooky movie’s comment on trauma, truths and the people we put our faith in is downright frightening. [A-]