Horror movies operate by a specific set of rules. A slasher film has certain tropes and beats – think of the “how to survive” scene in Scream – while a demonic possession film will not suddenly become about aliens. These rules are often broken, but a thoughtful horror film shows how and why that happens. It’s sort of like the structure of a song: tunes in the same subgenre follow the same structure, so the pleasure is in the little, clever details within that pattern. The Lodge, a new horror film from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, is what would happen if a pop song suddenly became an atonal dirge about how pop songs are stupid. This film does not play by the rules, and they are broken in ways that are not all that fun. They are unfair.
You may recall Franz and Fiala directed Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian horror film about two boys that torture their hapless mother. That film drew early comparisons to the work of Michael Haneke, another Austrian filmmaker, because Franz and Fiala presented their story with a cool, similarly dispassionate style. Look a little deeper, however, and there is none of Haneke’s intellectual rigor or involvement in the story. Franz and Fiala peddle in exploitative schlock, but they dress it up in the trappings and production design of European arthouse fare.
Like Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge is another upending of family as an institution. It begins with Laura (Alicia Silverstone) dropping off her children Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) at a handsome house, one that belongs to her ex-husband Richard (Richard Armitage). Richard tells Laura he plans to marry Grace (Riley Keough), a much younger woman, and Laura immediately shuts down. What follows is cheap and mean-spirited: Laura sits at her dining room table, pours herself some wine, and blows her brains out. Suicide is a thorny subject, and it is challenging to depict it with the emotional weight it deserves. Franz and Fiala use Laura’s sudden death to set the tone, and little else. They are in a rush to make us miserable, and have no interest in earning that discomfort.
Most of the film stretches our suspension of disbelief, even within the scope of horror. A few months after Laura’s death, Richard decides to leave his children with Grace in a remote cabin during winter, sort of like a team-building exercise. Aidan and Mia were already wary of Grace, and that was before they learned she was the lone survivor of an extreme cult. Franz and Fiala present this material without any humor or self-awareness, so the premise is so outlandish that cannot withstand much scrutiny. Once Richard leaves Grace with his children, strange things start to happen. There is a battle of wills between Aidan and Grace, except the film also suggests something way more sinister.
It is around this point when The Lodge abandons its own internal logic. The first section of the film is from Aidan’s point of view. We feel his resentment, and the camera keeps its distance from Grace, who is well-meaning but recognizes the pain in her new family. Almost invisibly, the film shifts toward Grace’s point of view, which leads to a glib reconfiguration of the central drama. We suddenly experience her terror, and the filmmakers suddenly withhold crucial information in order to inflict maximum pain on Grace (and the viewer by extension). There is no doubt The Lodge looks great and has committed performances – Keough has never been better – except the filmmakers do a disservice to those efforts.
This is a mean-spirited, cruel film. It is constructed like a sick joke, and the directors are the only ones laughing. The final scenes are meant to depict a tragic descent into full-bore madness. Due to overabundant foreshadowing, keen viewers will guess what happens before The Lodge really goes there. Franz and Fiala have a dim view of family, particularly in terms of what children can accomplish without a real sense of responsibility. That idea is intriguing, and a better horror film could have explored it in an evocative way. Skepticism of families is one thing, but these filmmakers are even more cynical than that. In one nasty scene after another, they demonstrate utter disdain for their audience.