Halfway through The Lodge, a creepy indie horror set in a remote, snowed-in cabin, someone makes the terrible and brilliant choice to turn on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The homage, though unsubtle, is perfectly appropriate: The scenes from that 1982 masterpiece playing out on a tiny TV mirror the isolation, paranoia, and distrust in Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s new film. Yet it’s always an unfortunate sign when the characters in one movie decide to put on another, better movie to drive the filmmakers’ point home. The Lodge is a passable night of thrills at the cinema—but you might enjoy yourself more if you go home and watch The Thing instead.
Fiala and Franz were the team behind the joyously yucky 2014 Austrian hit Goodnight Mommy, in which a pair of ghastly twin boys start to suspect that their mother, whose face is wrapped in bandages from a recent surgery, has been replaced by an impostor. The Lodge could easily be subtitled Goodnight Stepmommy. Though it has a far chillier aesthetic (frosted windows, heavy blankets, and lots and lots of snow), it has the same basic setup as the earlier film. A brother and sister, Aidan (played by Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), are housed in an isolated location with a woman they don’t entirely trust, and a nightmarish battle of wills ensues.
The script, by Fiala, Franz, and Sergio Casci, has the same parlor-trick structure as Goodnight Mommy, which is slow to reveal exactly who deserves the audience’s sympathies. Aidan and Mia are grappling with their father Richard’s (Richard Armitage) divorce from their mother, Laura (Alicia Silverstone), making their dad’s new fiancée, Grace (Riley Keough), an interloper they have to contend with. Grace is a survivor of a cult that committed mass suicide when she was a teenager, and much of The Lodge hinges on the question of her sanity.
Wondering whether someone is planning a diabolical act or merely exhibiting signs of deep trauma is, as a driving source of tension, somewhat off-putting. But that’s what the kids start to do when Richard’s work calls him away from his family’s winter getaway, leaving Grace, Aidan, and Mia trapped in a creaky little chalet with only The Thing on television to entertain them. Quickly enough, things begin to go bump in the night—objects moving or disappearing, the family dog barking at something offscreen. Aidan and Mia are suspicious; somehow, Grace must be to blame. Are they reacting to the distressing video they found about her past? Do they just hate their stepmom-to-be? Or is something more supernaturally terrifying going on?
So many of these mysteries rest on Keough’s performance, and she rises to the occasion as she usually does. In small-scale films such as Under the Silver Lake, Logan Lucky, It Comes at Night, and American Honey, she’s proved herself to be one of cinema’s most exciting younger talents, with a particular skill for playing enigmas like Grace. Though she barely appears in the first act of The Lodge, Keough can invest the tiniest of furtive glances with foreboding power. By the second act, she’s a more grounded character, a woman out of her depth with two wary kids. The script for The Lodge’s final half hour, however, requires her to tread into total unreality. That’s when the film’s premise begins to unravel.
A third-act twist is practically required for this kind of chamber horror; after an hour of inexplicable happenings (including some very creepy dreams), it’s time for The Lodge to explain whether its various shocks are real or imagined. But the answer that Fiala and Franz settle on is deeply unsatisfying—indulgent of the worst storytelling tics of their last movie, and not particularly fair to the characters they’ve created.
It’s a shame, because The Lodge builds up a pretty unsettling atmosphere. The directors clearly have panache, and are good at mixing sharp jumps with creeping dread. The set is well designed—every room overflows with shadowy corners and macabre props—and Keough is an arresting central figure. Yet Fiala and Franz can’t find a compelling purpose for the uncanny yarn they’ve spun. When all its ominous frights flame out in narrative chaos, The Lodge becomes a bore, more invested in the ghoulishness of its final reveal than in examining its unpleasant moral implications.