People tend to love Gothic horror for the atmospherics, not so much the narrative bones. “The Lodgers” certainly doesn’t have a lot of meat on those bones — not enough that you’d really want to dwell on the plot details afterward. But as a ripe chunk of pure baroque atmosphere, this lushly staged costume chiller is a fragrant beauty indeed. Irish director Brian O’Malley’s second feature (following 2014’s “Let Us Prey”) could appeal to the same audience that made a sleeper hit of period Brit ghost tale “The Woman in Black” four years ago.
Orphaned twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) live at a physical and emotional remove from the Irish village whose residents shun them anyway. But it’s not entirely by choice: The siblings believe themselves trapped by a curse that demands they remain alone in the impressive but decaying manse their English-emigre family has owned for generations, never permitting strangers entry.
Spirits that seem to dwell under a hatch in the grand hall appear more restless now that the youths have turned 18, suggesting perhaps they, too, will soon meet the fate of their parents and their parents’ parents before them: To drown together in the gated estate’s lake.
Edward has become a morbid, fearful, macabre man who hasn’t stepped outside once since finding mom and dad’s corpses some years before. But Rachel isn’t content to resign herself to a doomed fate. On a rare walk to town — after all, somebody has to get food for them both — she encounters handsome Sean (Eugene Simon), who’s just returned from his service in World War I with a prosthetic leg. His sacrifice is hardly appreciated by the local louts, who deride him as “fighting for England,” and who cast the occasional leering glance at seldom-seen Rachel.
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Sean stirs desires in Rachel that hitherto have had no possible outlet save self-gratification and her brother, who for his part seems all too eager to realize the more incestuous aspects of the “curse.” As this perverse triangular conflict brews, another boils over in the form of Mr. Bermingham (David Bradley), the family solicitor who’s arrived to inform the youths that their finances are exhausted and they must sell the house. He may well, in fact, be bilking them, but he’s certainly going to make a pest of himself. As the logic of such stories requires, things will not end well for him.
David Turpin’s screenplay is adequate but slender, with rather too few complications and a foundational mythology that, when finally revealed, proves pretty skimpy itself. That doesn’t trouble O’Malley. He brings so much gloomy, lustrous visual enchantment to the tale that it feels quite bewitching while you’re watching it, up to and including an extravagant watery climax that really doesn’t explain much. But then, perhaps making sense of it all is rather beside the point here. (Just who are the titular “lodgers,” anyhow?)
Similarly, it doesn’t matter a great deal that the performers are a bit variable (the leg of “Game of Thrones” regular Simon isn’t the only wooden thing about Sean); after all, the actors aren’t playing fully dimensionalized characters so much as picturesque figures in Gothic tableaux.
The real stars here, handled with loving care by O’Malley, are Richard Kendrick’s gorgeous widescreen lensing and Joe Fallower’s superbly detailed production design. Both make use of exquisite locations primarily in County Wexford, notably the storied, purportedly haunted Loftus Hall (which celebrated its 666th year last annum). A mournful cello-dominated score by scenarist Turpin and two others abets the pervasive mood.