Chilly corridors alike the lodge of The Lodge has nothing on The Overlook. All the same, a comparable chill blows through frosted windows and down shorter, less opulent hallways. The Shining isn’t the only wintry classic that might leap to mind watching this new addition to the subzero horror canon. Even before it pops up on a TV, John Carpenter’s artic The Thing asserts its influence through the paranoia and distrust that blankets the structure as thickly as any snow. “Who goes there?” those trapped within might ask. It’s not ghosts or shape-shifting extraterrestrials but maybe a more powerful force looking down from above, disapproval scrawled across His face.
Our journey, though, begins with a different chilly day, with a depressive Laura (Alicia Silverstone) dropping off her teenage son, Aidan (Jaeden Martell), and younger daughter, Mia (Lia McHugh), at the home of their father, Richard (Richard Armitage). Richard wants to finalize their divorce; Laura breaks down in anguish. You might initially guess, from the peculiarities of the framing and the intensity of Silverstone’s performance, that Laura is the movie’s protagonist, although that quickly, startlingly turns out not to be the case. It’s from there with near-surgical delicacy, that directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala shift the story’s perspective to Richard’s new fiancée, Grace (a great Riley Keough). The scene that introduces her is quietly remarkable; previously glimpsed only as a blurred silhouette, she slips into the passenger seat of Richard’s car, waits a beat and then turns back to the backseat to greet Aidan and Mia — and us — for the first time. Beguilingly, the film treats her as both a protagonist and a bit of a mystery, someone capable of exuding warmth and ambiguity in the same breath.
But before the family gets stranded, a cold war of resentment is already running deeper than the usual reluctance to warm to a surrogate parent. Grace, as it turns out, has some deep wounds of her own — her father was the leader of a radical Christian cult whose entire congregation committed suicide when she was twelve, leaving her the only survivor. But while she may be our protagonist, viewing from one vantage, this is a horror movie about a really selfish dad, as we see Richard attempt to rush a relationship between his grieving kids and the damaged woman with whom he’s trying to build a new life. (The two met through work; though never stated outright, the implication is that he was her psychiatrist, or at least studying the headline-grabbing case of the sect she outlived.) Things are tense enough before Richard invites Grace to join the family for Christmas at their secluded vacation home in the mountains (Sylvain Lemaitre’s production design is striking in its twisty isolationistic ways). And they get tenser still when he heads back to the city for work, leaving the three alone for a couple days. Sharp words are exchanged. Showers are spied upon. Pistols and leaky gas heaters make Chekhovian appearances. All the while, a set of stern eyes peer out from a creepy painting, centuries of institutional disapproval implicit in their gaze.
The plot, claustrophobic as the cabin and a little conventional, comes from the aforementioned writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala who bring their now-signature intensity from Austria to America; their super-slow zooms, slowly mounting tension and merciful absence of jump scares (boasted by Thimios Bakatakis’ frosty, cold white 35mm cinematography). The pair’s debut, Goodnight Mommy, was a nasty little three-hander with a superficially similar premise built around the war of wills between a young woman and the two rebellious kids she’s stuck looking after in an isolated house. That movie had a really obvious twist that didn’t much dampen its queasy thrills. The Lodge likewise hinges on a delayed reveal, less predictable (though still predicted decently earlier on for me) but also more convoluted; its plot mechanizations — the hows of what happen — require a rather significant suspension of disbelief. Yet Fiala and Franz also envelop the audience in a nightmare of subjectivity that makes the logistics feel less important. What matters is the characters’ boiling existential panic, which envelops the whole movie like the blizzard that snows in its lost souls.
Though it bears the logo of Hammer, the famous U.K. production house that kept Dracula and his gothic kin in theaters through the ’70s, The Lodge more keeps with contemporary trends in slow-burn horror. Which means lots of atonal skitters, ominously empty rooms, and a camera that moves at a creep and stays at an almost accusatory distance. Were they not probably developed simultaneously, one might accuse the film of biting the artisanal goose-bump style of Hereditary; note the inciting shock of bereavement an dollhouse motif (Note: The Lodge started production before Hereditary came out). In truth, The Lodge might have benefitted from a little of Ari Aster’s crooked sense of humor. There’s the shadow of a dark cringe comedy in Grace’s inability to win over these sad, sulky brats, but it’s suffocated by the relentless, grey-blue mood of despair Franz and Fiala establish and never once deviate from. Still, as a thriller about bone-deep religious anxiety, it’s admirably oppressive — in no small part thanks to Keough, who’s fast becoming a pro at pulling viewers into the sphere of her spooky dissociative calm. But the incredible key to her insidious and frightening performance is that by the end you’re not sure whether to fear her or fear for her. Dropping you into a blizzard of existential panic, The Lodge‘s rich, tactile atmosphere and bleak unease of religious dread at its simmering core ultimately make for a glacially unnerving cottage stay.