Rating: (2.5 stars)
The fact that the horror film “The Lodge” comes from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the Austrian duo who made the stylishly unsettling “Goodnight Mommy” in 2014, is enough to recommend it. True to form, the aunt-and-nephew filmmakers, who share directing duties — and the writing, here, with Sergio Casci — imbue even the ordinary with a sense of delicious dread.
Not that there is much ordinary about the setup in Franz and Fiala’s first English-language release. Richard (Richard Armitage) is a journalist pushing 50, who has announced to his wife and the mother of their two kids (Alicia Silverstone) his intention to divorce her in favor of a 30-year-old named Grace (Riley Keough). So far, so ordinary, in the world in which we live. Except that before the movie has taken two steps, we see Mom put a gun in her mouth and blow her brains out, followed by the revelation that Grace once belonged to a Christian suicide cult on which Richard had reported, and where, as a teenager, she was the sole survivor.
That explains the first few images in the film, which include a loaded revolver and a painting of the Virgin Mary. But it doesn’t explain everything, in a film that then jumps six months forward to the main story — one that, despite a satisfyingly slow-burn pace that keeps you guessing about what exactly is going on, contains a few holes. It also ends in a fairly conventional way — a bit of a disappointment considering Franz’s and Fiala’s unconventional storytelling aesthetic, which unspools its chills, sparingly, in a way that may frustrate some fans of mainstream horror.
That story takes place at Richard’s secluded mountain cabin. There, over a snowbound Christmas break, Richard decides to leave his son Aidan (Jaden Lieberher) and daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) alone to get to know Grace, who, although she’s about to marry Richard, is still hiding things from him. Sounds like a pleasant enough holiday, especially as the kids blame Grace for their mother’s suicide, and Aidan refers to his new stepmom as a “psychopath.”
What could go wrong?
This middle section of “The Lodge” delivers the greatest pleasure, as the relationship between Grace and the children gradually deteriorates, leaving us to wonder about who is more to blame. As damaged as Grace may be, Aidan and Mia are no picnic, and their acting out at times is less suggestive of real children than stock characters in a horror flick. There’s some nice ambiguity at play here — just not enough of it.
Franz and Fiala seem as interested in the fallout of religious zealotry as they are in standard genre thrills, and they ply this theme well, if at times with a heavy hand. That makes for a mostly smart tale, even when some moments feel under-thought. During a power outage at the cabin, for instance, Aidan appears to have designed and printed something out, mysteriously, on a computer. And there are recurrent shots of creepy dollhouse dioramas that feel like gratuitous nods to “Hereditary.”
Nominated for a handful of awards at niche festivals, including the Fantasia Festival, and one of the few movies to stand out in Sundance’s Midnight section this year, “The Lodge” isn’t a perfect treat. But for those who like their movies dark and disturbing, it does the trick.
R. At area theaters. Contains disturbing violence, some bloody images, strong language and brief nudity. 108 minutes.