Goodnight Stepmommy: “The Lodge” destined to remain one of the most rattling and haunting horror films of 2020

The Lodge (2020)
108 min.
Release Date: February 7, 2020 (Limited)

Austrian writing-directing duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz follow up 2015’s unshakable “Goodnight Mommy” with their English-language debut, “The Lodge.” Instead of twin brothers being stuck in an antiseptic modern home in the summery countryside with their mother—who might not be their mother—a brother and sister are stuck in a wintry cabin with their soon-to-be stepmom with a traumatic past. If the filmmakers have a different story to tell, even if it’s similarly an unpredictable three-hander, the level of creeping dread and insidious, unswerving tension is the same. Alarming and crafted with stark precision, “The Lodge” is a slow-burn horror film that rattles you and then haunts you afterwards. 

As siblings Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) wrestle with their parents finalizing their divorce and then the subsequent death of their mother (Alicia Silverstone), father Richard (Richard Armitage) decides to take his children to the mountains for Christmas and have them spend quality time with his girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough), whom he’s asked to marry. The kids already resent Grace, and then they do a little research on her: she was the daughter of a cult leader and the sole survivor of a mass suicide when she was twelve years old. Once they arrive to the family cabin, Aidan and Mia don’t make the holiday getaway easy for Grace, who begins taking her stabilizing pills and hiding them from Richard. Then, when Richard has to drive back into the city for work and promises to be back in time to open presents, Grace reassures him that she can handle the kids for a couple of days. One of those mornings, Grace wakes up to discover that they’ve lost electricity, all of their food has disappeared, and that all of their belongings and the Christmas decorations Grace put up are missing. Are Mia and Aiden just pushing Mia over the edge, is Grace having a mental break, or is something else threatening to awaken Grace’s demons?

“The Lodge” puts one on edge from the very beginning, tableaux in the form of a prophetic dollhouse ominously an exact replica of the forthcoming lodge. Gnawing at one’s own psyche with expert cruelty, directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz pull the strings with a complete command of a chilly, foreboding mood and instability, as a forbidding threat looms and lurks inside the isolated, snow-swept setting. The question of who is to fear and who is to fear for keeps changing as much as the viewer’s allegiances with Grace or Aidan and Mia, as well as one’s guess into which horror sub-genre the film will fall. Not dissimilar from “Goodnight Mommy,” Fiala and Franz (who reworked the script written by Sergio Casci) prove themselves skilled in rug-pulling misdirection without making it all feel like an empty trick. After this would-be family has been put through the wringer, the final moments are gasp-inducing and quietly, unforgettably upsetting.

Riley Keough (2018’s “Under the Silver Lake”) thoroughly impresses in the emotionally taxing and complicated role of Grace, her brittle mental state giving way for a descent into delirium and the religious background she fought hard to leave behind and start fresh. Grace is sympathetic, attempting to become more acquainted with her boyfriend’s children, and yet she unnerves like a ticking time bomb, and Keough note-perfectly conveys the sense that she is the “unreliable narrator” in this story. Not to mention, Grace's decision on what movies to keep the kids occupied—a wild double feature of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and the creepily family-oriented Michael Keaton-starrer “Jack Frost”—is quite amusing. With thematically dark material that challenges them on an emotionally raw level, Jaeden Martell (2019's "Knives Out") and newcomer Lia McHugh are excellent, too, as Aidan and Mia, the former prone to giving Grace the silent treatment and the latter more impressionable and clinging to the innocence of her beloved doll through her grieving process. Alicia Silverstone’s time is brief as Aidan and Mia’s mother, Laura, but after a shocking exit, she makes such a lasting impact of heartbreak that lingers over the rest of the film like a phantom.

Aiding in forming a queasy feeling in the pit of the stomach and a palpably frostbitten chill, every creative and technical element is operating at the highest power. Director of photography Thimios Bakatakis’ lensing is masterfully composed and works in tandem with Danny Bensi and Saunder’s Jurriaans strings-laden score when the directors aren’t getting enough mileage out of using deafening silence. In lesser hands, the film could feel exploitative in its handling of mental illness and placing children in peril, but one can feel the directors’ sympathy for every character involved and how they each process grief and trauma differently. Slyly snaking through the grimmest corners of manipulation and blind faith, “The Lodge” punishes and concludes with devastatingly bleak suggestion in the unthinkably unpleasant repercussions that will follow after the final frame. It unsettles and disturbs, leaves you for dead, and then refuses to be shaken off.

Grade: A -