As close to a breakout as there seems to be among the disappointing crop of horror films in Sundance’s Midnight section this year, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s “The Lodge” extends the creepy-domestic-crisis tension of their 2014 Austrian debut “Goodnight Mommy” a bit further toward conventional chiller terrain. Once again, children and a maternal figure are left in a social isolation that proves very bad for somebody’s (perhaps everybody’s) mental health, though this time the supernatural is also a possible factor.
In fact, there are too many explanations dangled here, to ends somewhat frustratingly contradictory rather than usefully ambiguous. That will irk mainstream horror fans, as will a pace that at times seems less slow-burning than just plain slow. English-language “The Lodge” is atmospheric and intriguing enough to appeal to more adventurous viewers. Still, it’s too much of a low-key mixed bag to repeat the significant popular success of tonally similar recent Sundance midnighters like “The Witch” and “Hereditary” when Neon launches a U.S. theatrical release later this year.
Approximately 10-year-old Mia (Lia McHugh) and adolescent Aiden (Jaeden Martell) are suffering through their parents’ separation. Dropping off the kids one day, Laura (Alicia Silverstone) is informed by Richard (Richard Armitage) that he not only wants their divorce finalized, but plans on marrying his much younger girlfriend. Laura takes this news home, where she processes it with the help of a loaded gun in a moment that would be even more effectively jolting without a rather obvious effects cut in the middle of the shot.
Six months later, the two children are no more kindly disposed toward dad’s new partner, whom they blame for mom’s demise. Grace (Riley Keough) is actually someone journalist Richard knows from a creepy story he once researched: At age 12, she was the sole survivor of a mass suicide by her father’s Christian cult sect (though not all deaths may have been voluntary). She appears to be fully recovered from that traumatic past. But Aiden tells his father, “You left mom for a psychopath,” and the pills she sneaks suggest she’s not on such terra firma as Richard assumes. Insisting the kids must get to know her and vice versa, he takes everyone to the family’s rural getaway home for the holidays, leaving them alone for a few pre-Christmas days while he goes back to work in the city.
In his absence, things are chilly. But they get much more literally so once the trio awaken one morning to find heat, electricity, and cell phones won’t turn on. What’s more, the food is gone, along with their warm clothes — leaving them stranded and at risk in the middle of a blizzard far from any town or neighbor. Her stabilizing meds missing as well, Grace begins acting more and more unstable. But are inner demons driving her mad, or are the children deliberately pushing her over an edge? Is what they’re all experiencing some sort of vengeful haunting from Laura, or perhaps Grace’s fanatical preacher father?
Co-written by Sergio Casci and the directors, the script keeps us guessing, but blunders to an extent by providing some concrete evidence that more than one explanation might be the right one. (It’s all complicated even further by recurrent views of an elaborate dollhouse in which these events are mimicked, suggesting they might not be happening in reality at all.) In the end, this tactic seems not so much mysterious as just tactically confusing. It’s also annoying that the writers utilize so much religious imagery and narrative references (several figures here are devoutly Christian) without actually saying anything on the subject.
“The Lodge” may be best taken on the same terms as ’60s/early ’70s Italian giallos, with their somewhat random manipulations of plot and character logic in service of atmospheric shocks. Genre homage does not appear to be an intention here, but the film is certainly at its best in fostering a sense of stylish dread and orchestrating some harrowing individual sequences. Still, even those elements’ effectiveness would be greater if the whole moved at a slightly less draggy pace. Stealth trimming of up to 10 minutes might make a significant difference in overall and cumulative impact.
The performers are fine, though not handed a great deal of psychological depth in the writing. Keough is solid, though in fact her solidity isn’t ideal — an actor more naturally attuned to the mercurial and fragile might’ve created a descent into madness vivid enough to override all the film’s uneven aspects.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ frequent DP Thimios Bakatakis finds the forbiddingly alien in both the cold white Quebec-shot exteriors and Sylvain Lemaitre’s dark-wood house interiors. Daniel Pensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ original score provides another source of tasteful ominousness in the thoughtful assembly.