As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for The Lodge. Consider yourself warned.
I first saw trailers for The Lodge last year, after its premiere at Sundance. It looked like a creepy, claustrophobic, wintry scare-fest à la The Shining, so I was all in for that. And while it didn’t exactly terrify me the way The Shining did and still does, I would say that The Lodge certainly disturbs. But whether or not you find that to be true horror is something that’s probably different for everybody.
So we start with some establishing shots of what we think is a house, and probably even the titular lodge – and it is, but it’s not. It’s actually the most incredibly detailed dollhouse I’ve ever seen – except for the ones in Hereditary, another flick that this one resembles, not only in its creep factor but also its sheer weirdness. But more on that later. So we meet a mom named Laura (Alicia Silverstone, in an all-too-brief role), hurrying to get her kids, young Mia (Lia McHugh) and teenager Aidan (Jaeden Martell), ready to go spend the weekend with their father, Richard (Richard Armitage), in a typical joint-custody setup. Laura has a mini-breakdown in the bathroom, clearly not handling the separation well – but she soldiers on and brings the kids to their father. Richard then tells her that he wants to get their divorce finalized as soon as possible, as he’s planning to marry his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough). Laura, her devastation obvious underneath her brave face, simply says, “Okay,” and leaves. She then goes home, pours herself a glass of wine, takes a big sip and then reaches into her purse, pulling out a gun and shooting herself.
The kids are understandably devastated and traumatized, as evidenced by a heartbreaking crying fit Mia has in her room. Richard tries his best, but she’s inconsolable and she kicks him out. Aidan joins her after a moment, sleeping on the floor next to her while holding her hand. The kindness and solidarity between the kids is one of its strengths – but it will have a whole new meaning as the story goes on.
Cut to six months later, and Mia and Aidan are living with their father, getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner. Richard’s having major problems with the kids as far as their willingness to even talk to Grace – whom we haven’t even seen yet, but whom they blame for their mother’s suicide. Richard’s just as stubborn as the kids though, telling them that he plans on marrying her. And a furious Aidan comments that Grace is a “psychopath” who his father only became infatuated with because of the book he wrote about cults. Turns out that Grace grew up in a fundamentalist cult, led by her father, who convinced the members to commit mass suicide. Grace was only 12 at the time and was the only survivor – and it’s implied that she still isn’t stable.
Cut to just before Christmas, as Richard and the sullen kids pick up Grace and her dog, and the whole bunch drive up into the mountains, to the lodge – a place that’s the complete opposite of their modern, natural-light-blasted homes in the city. The lodge is old, dark and full of creaky wood. And not only that, but the influence of the kids’ dead mother is everywhere – mostly in the form of crucifixes and one really creepy, crackly painting of a female saint. It’s clear that these things bother Grace, not only because of the constant reminders of Laura, but also bringing up unpleasant memories of her own. But she makes sure to take her medication to keep her calm and stable – though she hides it from Richard and the kids.
The next morning, Grace heads out to join Richard and the kids, skating on the frozen pond by the house. And as soon as she gimps herself out onto the ice, Aidan and Mia snipe at her for having the audacity to wear their mother’s hat. Not realizing, Grace apologizes and gives it back – Mia puts it on and we see that she carries a Barbie-like doll with her everywhere that looks like and is dressed just like her mother. While playing with the doll, Mia ventures farther and farther out on the ice – a worried Grace tries to stop her and ends up falling through the ice herself. Richard and Aidan manage to pull her out and get her back to the lodge, where Richard tells Grace that he’ll stay there with them instead of going back to the city to get some work done before the holiday. But Grace, wanting to make things work, bravely tells him she can handle a couple of days alone with the kids. Richard gives Grace a tutorial in shooting the revolver he keeps in the house – although it turns out that Grace doesn’t need it. She shoots like a pro. And we all know we’re gonna see that gun later.
So in one of the worst movie-parenting moves ever, Richard leaves. Grace tries her hardest to engage the kids with decorating the house and just making meals for them. She has more luck with Mia than Aidan, who barricades himself in his room and refuses to talk to her – but then at night, she catches him watching her coming out of the shower. So the next day Grace does her best job of parenting, calling him out as politely as possible and just asking for a truce. Aidan reluctantly agrees, and that night they all hang out and watch John Carpenter’s The Thing (one of my all-time favorite flicks and one of the all-time greatest horror flicks – but maybe not the best idea for kids). Aidan makes a peace offering of some hot chocolate to Grace, which she appreciates. But then she gets sleepier and sleepier.
Grace has disturbing dreams, memories of herself videotaping the dead cult members, their faces covered with shrouds and their mouths covered with duct tape with the word “sin” written on it. And when she wakes up, she finds that all of her stuff is gone – including her medication. And her dog. She confronts Aidan and Mia, who can be the only culprits, right? Well, they deny knowing anything about it and in fact, all of their stuff is missing, too. All of their cell phones are dead, the Christmas decorations are gone, the generator’s out, the water won’t flow from the pipes – and of course, they’re also stuck in the middle of a storm. Grace tries to keep calm, but as time passes and she’s unable to fall back on her medication, and other weird little things happen – like the word “repent” appearing on a foggy bathroom mirror and looking out the window to see a hundred snow angels in neat little rows – the stress becomes harder for Grace to bear. Finally, she decides that they’ll pack up whatever food they have and walk to the nearest town. But Aidan says they’ll never make it and refuses to go – so Grace tells him to stay there with Mia and she’ll go on her own.
Grace then soldiers her way through the storm in a sequence that could’ve been cut right out of The Revenant. She wanders in a dream-infused delirium until she comes across a weird little abandoned cabin that just happens to be shaped like a cross. She thinks she sees someone inside – someone who looks an awful lot like her dead father – but alas, she’s unable to get in. Exhausted and frost-bitten, she keeps on going, eventually finding a trail of footprints that she eagerly follows – only to find, of course, that they’re her own footprints, leading her right back to the lodge. The kids bring her in and do their best to help her, but Grace is now traumatized – traumatized just like they are.
But it still gets worse, as the kids are now praying madly, “repenting” for their sins, convinced that they’re all dead and just don’t realize it. How else to explain all the missing stuff? How else to explain Grace being led right back to the lodge? How else to explain a strange, newspaper-looking thing that the kids show her, talking about their accidental deaths due to the fumes from their gas heater. How else to explain the fact that they can’t die? Something which Aidan demonstrates by actually hanging himself from the rafters – which horrifies Grace, and she’s even more horrified when he opens his eyes and talks to her, showing her that they can’t die. So they must already be dead. They must be stuck in Purgatory. Because, y’know, that could be the only possible, reasonable explanation.
But we’re way past reasonable at this point, and that thin thread of sanity Grace is holding onto snaps. And then, just as we’re all starting to believe as she does, the flick pulls the rug out from under us. Turns out that the whole thing really was a cruel prank perpetrated by Aidan and Mia – which they finally admit to after realizing that they’ve pushed things a tad bit too far. They pull all the “missing” stuff out of the basement and try to show Grace that everything’s okay, it was just an elaborate joke. But it’s way too late for that.
And by the time Worst-Dad-Ever Richard manages to get back to the lodge, it’s just in time to get himself killed by that gun we saw earlier. And in the creepiest, most F-ed up scene of all, Grace, the kids and their dead father sit around the table to have lunch. Grace sings a haunting rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee” – and the tearful kids eventually start singing along in what seems to be a sad and terrified acceptance of their fate. Then Grace covers their mouths with pieces of duct tape labeled with “sin.” There’s a shot of the gun, and – cut.
So what does it all mean? Well, this could’ve been one of those cerebral flicks where it’s left up to your imagination to figure it out – and you could talk all day about its underlying meanings. I think it would’ve been better left that way – because once we know for sure that Aidan and Mia are behind the whole thing, it becomes a very cut-and-dry case of “be careful what you wish for” on the part of the kids. They wanted to drive Grace over the edge and they did. They wanted to show their father what a “psychopath” she really was and they did. So there’s not much mystery to figure out – which puts The Lodge squarely into the same category as a lot of other recent, indie horror like The VVitch, the aforementioned Hereditary and Midsommar – flicks that’re much more bizarre than scary. Disturbing? Oh, yeah. F-ed up? Most definitely. But to me, a true horror flick is one that keeps you on the edge of your seat while you’re in the theater – and up at night when you get home, messing up your dreams and making you keep the lights on. And The Lodge, while certainly creepy and weird, just doesn’t stay with you the way true horror should.
Directed by: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Written by: Sergio Casci, Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Release Date: 2019 (Sundance Film Festival)
Run Time: 1 hr 48 min