The Lodge. 2020.
Directed by Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz. Screenplay by Fiala, Franz, & Sergio Casci.
Starring Riley Keough, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone, Jaeden Martell, & Lia McHugh.
FilmNation Entertainment / Hammer Films
108 minutes / Rated R
Drama / Horror / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains significant spoilers.
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz wowed me permanently after I saw their 2014 debut feature Goodnight Mommy. The screenplay brought with it a familiar presence yet was executed in a highly unique way, and its Freudian horror was chilling. Their segment in The Field Guide to Evil— “Die Trud”— was a luscious piece of short film making, not without its proper creeps. They’ve done nothing to disappoint with The Lodge, which is one of the more bleak, depressing offerings in recent horror memory.
Fiala and Franz’s latest film starts with Richard (Richard Armitage) and his children, Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), left reeling in the wake of his estranged/soon-to-be ex-wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone) shooting herself. He’s already begun a relationship with Grace (Riley Keough) while separated. Now he’s got to move on, and help his kids do the same. In anticipation of Christmas, Richard plans to go to a remote cabin with the kids, along with Grace. It’s meant to be a bonding experience, considering Richard has business to take care of, meaning Grace will be there a while alone with Aidan and Mia.
What happens at the cabin before Richard arrives descends into a living nightmare.
The Lodge is a stunning, at times shocking horror-thriller centred around an excruciatingly real drama about a family falling apart. Some of the greatest horror starts with everyday life: a single mother and her daughter at the heart of The Exorcist; the grieving, cave-diving woman whose husband and child die in an accident at the start of The Descent; or, the death of a boy that drives his mother to homicidal rage being the driving force of 1980’s Friday the 13th. Fiala and Franz dig into the terror of a divorce, in the process unearthing a whole bunch of other issues. Grace suffers dearly, like her life is one long trial for sainthood— or perhaps a losing battle to live up to the Madonna— exposing unrealistic expectations religion heaps onto women. More importantly, her fate is a result of gaslighting by Aidan and Mia, and how they manipulate her says a lot of ugly things about how people treat women and trauma.
Deliciously obvious symbolism places a gas heater in the middle of the cabin living room, and at the core of Aidan and Mia’s nasty plan for revenge, standing as an image of the gaslighting to come. The audience is gaslighted along with Grace because, for a time, Fiala and Franz play with our expectations: is Grace feeling misplaced guilt + dredging up old trauma? There’s no reason to automatically assume Aidan and Mia would go to extreme lengths to get what they consider as revenge on the woman they blame for their mother’s suicide. Probably why it’s all the more horrific once we start to figure out what’s really happening.
Something particularly interesting is how Aidan and Mia use technology to their advantage. The term gaslight comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, made into a 1940 British film and a 1944 American film, so it’s almost like we’re seeing The Lodge convert gaslighting into 21st-century language. The kids print a fake In Loving Memory pamphlet using digital tech to make Grace believe they’re all dead. They exploit access to their dad’s computer to dig into Grace’s past, as well as use audio clips of her father to pump through speakers placed upstairs in the cabin as a way to convince Grace she’s having auditory hallucinations. Finally, and most horrible of all— probably also the best evidence to prop up my theory here— Aidan’s fake suicide is done via stunt, evoking cruel cinematic language, and encompassing the meta-fiction of the term gaslighting.
What’s far more interesting than Aidan and Mia’s revenge plot is how the film plays off the way an audience usually sympathises with characters in a horror film. The story and plot are constructed as such that we come to feel empathy— or, for women who’ve been gaslighted, sympathy— for the character who goes on to commit the horrific acts which define the film. The construction of the plot likewise gives us insight into trauma: how it can reemerge and wreak havoc on a person’s life, and how those who know of our trauma(s) can manipulate us, potentially in very dangerous ways like we witness with Grace being manipulated by the kids.
Adding to the overall tragedy is Richard’s idiotic idea to leave his children with Grace, whom they deeply resent. He’s written about Grace in books, clearly blurring the lines between his personal and professional lives, and has intimate knowledge about her traumatic childhood with a cult leader for a father. The fact Richard leaves Grace in a fairly remote location, fully aware that Aidan thinks she’s “a psychopath” and his kids directly blame her for their mother’s death, is a glaring mistake on the part of male chauvinism. He treats Grace like a babysitter rather than a fiancee, dumping her at the cabin with his kids because it’s more convenient than taking time off. This shows us Richard’s semi-Madonna-whore complex, compounded by religion’s role in the film.
“It’s time to open the door”
Aside from gaslighting, The Lodge maintains a heavy focus on religious themes, from Grace’s former life in a Heaven’s Gate-like religious cult to the Christian beliefs of Aidan and Mia passed on by their mother— all coming to bear in devastating fashion on the film’s plot. Religious imagery hovers over the frame in many shots. The first vivid religious iconography is the cross on the wall behind Laura that gets painted with her blood after she commits suicide. Even just brief dialogue in the beginning of the film lets us onto how deeply entrenched this family is in religious faith. Mia’s insistence that her mother “can‘t go to heaven” is an indication of how indoctrinated she is by Judeo-Christian values. Grace is by far the character who brings out the majority of the religious themes, and in such tragic ways.
The painting in the cabin is a Madonna— a depiction of the Virgin Mary, specifically L‘Annunciata (a.k.a the Virgin Annunciate), painted by Antonello da Messina likely some time around 1476. This saintly image of motherhood runs throughout the film, as the painting is seen in the cabin and also in the dollhouse— being prayed to by the doll family— which Aidan and Mia used to concoct their elaborate, awful plan. The kids’ mother Laura is deified in their minds. A Madonna then symbolises everything Grace can never attain, at least in the minds of the kids. In a broader sense, it’s an allegory for the wider systemic treatment of women by organised religion, how a woman is expected to live a saintly life, like the Virgin Mary, or else be rejected, often times destroyed like Grace. An especially painful image of Grace internalising this religious misogyny comes after she’s gone off the deep end and the kids see her kneeling on glowing hot logs from the fireplace. While Grace feels the burning wood singe through her pants and melt her skin we hear her faintly whisper a prayer, uttering the words “my purity.”
The end of The Lodge curdled my blood, as Grace experiences an uncanny repetition of the past taking over her present. The whole film feels like a straight-faced, better version of 1988’s Bad Dreams without the supernatural elements, and its dark seriousness results in a fantastically grim piece of work. A heavy air laid over me once the credits rolled, my mind racing with those final few images of Grace, Aidan, and Mia at the dinner table, the now broken painting of the Virgin Mary hanging behind them. This is a film that lingers in the mind and under the skin.
Horror is one thing. Creeping dread is an entirely other emotion. Fiala and Franz sustain it at a level that’s near impossible. Their restraint at the end, only suggesting what we KNOW is coming, makes that dread last long after the film’s over. I haven’t been able to shake the feelings this one left me with, and don’t know I ever will. Ghosts and demons grip me for as long as they’re onscreen, they don’t usually keep me up at night personally. The Lodge‘s terror exists out there in the real world, it’s happening right now— in the fanatically faithful, the cruelty of gaslighting, and the exploitation of peoples traumas— and these are some of the things that haunt me most.