Hello, everyone! Yesterday I had a hankering for horror, so I watched The Lodge, a 2019 horror film directed by the Austrian duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, whose debut film Goodnight Mommy I reviewed all the way back in 2015. Goodnight Mommy demonstrated that the duo’s strengths lay in their ability to create a haunting atmosphere with beautifully off-kilter cinematography, but that their central weakness was their inability to write a realistic plot. Four years later, The Lodge shows some marked improvement: the movie is absolutely gorgeous, the atmosphere is oppressively creepy, and the plot mostly works. Except for a few plot choices that almost defy belief, The Lodge is a chilling and cohesive film that communicates a clear idea about the consequences of throwing unresolved trauma into a splintered family unit. By playing with themes of shifting identity, motherhood, and childhood cruelty, directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have successfully laid the groundwork for their own little niche in horror.
Synopsis: After his estranged wife’s unexpected death, journalist Richard Hall takes his two children, 16-year-old Aiden and eight-year-old Mia, to their family lodge to spend Christmas in the country with his new fiancée Grace. After Richard returns to the city for work, the two kids are left alone with the mysterious woman. As tensions rise in the house, strange events start to occur, and a fierce blizzard leaves the trio in total isolation and forced to confront their pasts.
My take: Imagine yourself trapped in a blizzard with your father’s unfamiliar new fiancée. Now imagine yourself as the fiancée, trapped in that same blizzard with your partner’s hostile children. It’s a nightmare scenario for both sides, and directors Fiala and Franz play that tension like a violin, ratcheting up the dread as they fill each frame of the film with shots of the lonely desolation of winter. Even before we get to The Infamous Lodge, we feel the dread dripping from every scene. The icy color palette, uncomfortable close-ups, and the eerie fixation on religious iconography had me nervous even before Grace is introduced.
The film is split between two main perspectives: the children’s perspective, and Grace’s point of view. In the beginning of the film, watching through the children’s eyes, Grace is an unknown quantity. The audience doesn’t even see her face until about twenty minutes through the film, and when we finally do, after straining to pick her out from her silhouette in a backlit window, or a shadow through an icy car windshield, her face is a definite surprise. She looks very much like the children’s dead mother, a shock that continues to resonate as the director’s play up this similarity throughout the film.
Identity and replacement is a central theme of the film. From the first few scenes, we’re trained to empathize with the children and see Grace how they see her: a replacement of their mother. We learn that Grace is the last surviving member of a religious suicide cult, and that Richard met her while working on his book. An affair is heavily implied to be the catalyst of their relationship, and their obvious age difference only emphasizes the feeling that Richard has chosen Grace to be a younger, newer replacement for his wife. With these facts in the audience’s mind, the cruelty of the forced vacation, and their father’s indifferent abandonment, make the children’s hostility towards Grace seem reasonable and sympathetic.
But The Lodge is not a film about evil stepmothers. As the film progresses, and we learn more about Grace’s past and her inner psyche, the tables start to turn. Is it the children we should be empathizing with, or Grace, a woman whose traumatic past has left her with a dependency on medication, and an almost desperate need for family and approval? The film doesn’t answer that question immediately, instead drawing out these competing perspectives and challenging the viewer’s perception of their own reality until the last quarter of the film.
It’s here, at the “twist,” where the film’s thematic cohesion and tight plotting starts to unravel. I won’t go too into details to avoid spoilers, but it’s safe to say that the twist is very reminiscent of the plot of Goodnight Mommy. That said, while I had huge problems with the ending of the former film, I wasn’t as bothered by The Lodge’s conclusion. This film had strong enough characterization that all of the character’s actions seemed probable, if not realistic. If we look at this film as a symbolic piece, rather than a piece of realism, it makes a lot more sense. It becomes a piece about trauma, and how the rendering of a family, or the desire to keep a family intact, can cause people to act out in harmful and unpredictable ways. It’s also a film about the consequences of repressing one’s past. As a house trapped and isolated in a blinding snowstorm, The Lodge perfectly represents how trauma can keep people frozen in time, and prevent them from moving towards their futures. Now matter how Aiden, Mia, and Grace try to escape their pasts, and no matter how they try to rewrite, ignore, or conquer their trauma, they can’t leave it behind. Whether The Lodge represents trauma, Purgatory, or death, is left up to the viewer to decide. But to say that the film is a failure because of the unrealistic nature of the character’s actions gives the film too little credit for what it’s trying to say.
Final consensus: Overall, The Lodge is a successful horror movie. Instead of jump scares, it relies on slowly building dread, spooky cinematography, and the horror of petty cruelties. Many viewers were frustrated by the “twist,” and while I was, too, I think the overarching themes of the film are clear enough to overcome it. My only wish is that this film had been in Austrian instead of English. Now that would have been really terrifying.