Imitation is considered the highest form of flattery, but what happens when the imitation comes with no original thought, no creativity, or any other reason to exist than to ride the coattails of its influences? This question is answered by new horror film 'The Lodge', which wears its influences so readily it seems to be almost proud of the fact it is an empty exercise in nothingness.
The premise for 'The Lodge' is simple: devastated by the recent loss of their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone, 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'), teenager Aiden (Jaeden Martell, 'Knives Out') and his younger sister Mia (Lia McHugh, 'Totem') are horrified when their father Richard (Richard Armitage, 'Ocean's 8') exiles them to their family lodge for Christmas with his new, younger girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough, 'Under The Silver Lake'). Instead of, you know, blaming their adult father for leaving their mother for someone else, Aiden and Mia focus all their hatred on Grace, who is the sole survivor of the dangerous cult that Richard's new book details. Her unsuccessful attempts to bond with Aidan and Mia are strained even further when the lodge loses electricity, and then strangely all food and possessions - including Grace's medication, a must for her to maintain her already precarious grip on her sanity. Desperate and running out of time and options, Grace, Aiden and Mia try to piece together how to survive - that is, Aiden and Mia stress, if they're even still alive.
What's so disappointing about 'The Lodge' is that Austrian directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have proved they are more than capable of making an effective horror film. Their 2014 film 'Goodnight Mommy', and while not boasting the smartest screenplay, it featured some of the most striking visual choices and downright disturbing body horror of many recent horror films. Blame it on a shift to English-language filmmaking or maybe even studio interference, but the chasm in quality between 'Goodnight Mommy' and 'The Lodge' is astounding. One would be forgiven for thinking 'The Lodge' was distributed by Twitter-favourite company A24 from the way it mimics the visual language of their films - a cool colour palette, slow pans around corners (and unnecessarily through dollhouses), lots of close-ups, a reliance on natural lighting. These choices feel fitting, considering the tone Franz and Fiala are trying to establish, but none of them are interesting at all. 'The Lodge' also features some of the worst camera work I've seen in quite some time, which paired with the colour grading makes for a downright ugly and amateur-looking film. The camera moves so unnecessarily, as if it's scared of staying still, and in some moments will even rework an angle of a still shot as if it knows it isn't working (a shot of Grace staring out a window starts off way too high and then awkwardly lowers itself for no reason). If nothing else, some unintentional humour can be derived from just how poorly it looks put together.
A number of moments in 'The Lodge', while already pushing the boundaries of logic, are thankfully void of the cheap jump scares one would expect from a movie that has no idea what it's doing; ironically enough, a jump scare or two might have actually helped save this film. Without any big moments or interesting cinematography, there's nowhere for the massive holes in logic to hide, and any moments that are used to develop a "creepy" atmosphere are laughable. Keyboard warriors will be quick to point out that 'The Lodge' was written before 'Hereditary', a film to which comparisons cannot help but be drawn, but the former actually shot nearly a year later, and the derivative creative decisions are hard to ignore. Mia's dollhouse, which mirrors the layout of their lodge, should be a golden opportunity to send chills down the audience's spines, much like the one Toni Colette works on in 'Hereditary'; instead, it's another moment to lean over to your friend and ask what the fuck is going on (who, who thought it would be a good idea for Mia to obsessively cling to a doll that just so happens to have the exact same clothes as her mother, right down to her old red beanie?). 'The Lodge' has no idea how to make typically creepy elements in horror creepy, deploying such favourites as an off-tune musical Christmas toy, a dog barking at nothing, and slowly singing religious hymns with a zero per cent hit rate.
To dissect the fundamental thematic issues of 'The Lodge' is to discuss major plot spoilers, so I will try my best to work around these if, for some astounding reason, this review isn't enough to dissuade you from watching this film. The way in which 'The Lodge' handles its heavy topics of mental health, PTSD, suicide and trauma by weaponising them and using them for shock value is insulting. This tone is set quite early on with a moment of incredible, jarring violence (consider this a trigger warning for those sensitive to depictions of suicide). Franz and Fiala have bitten off far more than they can chew, resulting in contrived plot beats that scream of an inability to handle these topics in a way that is both respectful yet scary. I'm not at all saying that mental illness shouldn't and can't be used to scare an audience, but it is drawn in such broad, black and white strokes in 'The Lodge' that it is reductive and, in the end, damaging. Ultimately, it has nothing interesting to say about any of these topics, instead using them to unsuccessfully shock audiences without earning any audience investment.
'The Lodge' wants so badly to be considered a highbrow horror film, but forgets completely to try and be compelling.
My thorough lampooning may imply that there are no redeeming qualities about 'The Lodge', but luckily there is one - only one. Lead star Riley Keough is often the best part of any project she is attached to, and this is most certainly the case for 'The Lodge'. Keough commits to a physically and psychologically demanding role that she excels in, selling some of the more intense moments with painful screams and frantic facial expressions, but even this can't elevate the hilariously bad performances from her co-stars. 'The Lodge' is essentially a three-hander between Keough, Martell and McHugh, and I cannot remember a film this unbalanced by its lead performances. Martell and McHugh have obviously been guided to exaggerate bratty behaviour in their performances, and this is inexplicably translated into hushed line delivery from Martell and pathetic wails from McHugh. As a result, it feels like the three actors are in three different movies, a mishmash which ultimately just does not work and does nothing to keep audiences sympathetic towards Aiden and Mia, upon which the success of the film's twist vitally hinges.
'The Lodge' wants so badly to be considered a highbrow horror film, but it forgets completely to try and be compelling, riding on flimsy attempts at a creepy tone and calling it a day.