Mental illness has served as an efficient horror bogeyman for over a century now. From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Psycho to The Silence of the Lambs to Split, many of the best films ever made have created drama out of insane characters acting according to their off-kilter natures. Some of these films have treated these unfortunate souls with a sense of mournful caution, with the terrifying mystery of mental illness underscoring the proceedings.
Other films haven’t been quite so respectful, choosing instead to use insanity as a narrative shortcut; a convenient device that allows the writer to incorporate the most outlandish character behavior without having to bother with motivation. Thankfully, in recent years, the national conversation surrounding mental illness has started to evolve, and the new horror film The Lodge, directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, is among the first attempts to actively absorb this conversation in the story itself. The results are mixed, but the attempt is noble.
The story centers around Aiden and Mia, a brother and sister (Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh) whose imbalanced mother (Alicia Silverstone) takes her own life, forcing them to live with their father, Richard (Richard Armitage). As the holidays approach, the family opts to spend a few days at an idyllic lodge in the middle of the woods. The father invites his young girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), to come with them, hoping that she will start to bond with the children. When work takes Richard away for a few days, Grace sees it as an opportunity to connect, with Mia and Aiden suspicious of this would-be interloper. However, a series of strange events leads Grace’s childhood in a religious cult to bubble to the surface. Soon, Grace is questioning her own reality and the children are in danger.
Were it not for the languid pacing and portentous cinematography – along with the very committed cast – the more ridiculous aspects of this story could overwhelm the viewer. The stupid decisions made by Richard, Grace, and the kids eventually start to compound, and the obvious transparency of the screenwriting machinations becomes tedious. Richard’s early introduction of a gun is so abrupt and out-of-character that he may as well have revealed his last name to be Chekhov. And each plot twist is so clearly telegraphed that it’s almost laughable when the characters treat them with any sincerity at all.
It really is a shame that the screenplay is so obvious, because the suffocating atmosphere and tragic tone are genuinely effective. The lodge itself – which in other circumstances could probably be quite cozy – here begins to take on characteristics of the Overlook Hotel. It almost seems to expand and change shape, emphasizing the loneliness and isolation of the characters. The story may be small in scale, but it takes on an operatic quality, leading to a sense of dread that makes the viewer increasingly uneasy.
As the film comes to an end, it is this sense of inevitable tragedy that wins out. The children’s grief and Grace’s instability soon feed into each other in a way that is both horrifying and heartbreaking. We soon come to see the narrative predicability throughout the film as a sort of omen; a warning against taking these mental and emotional wounds too lightly. Other thrillers treat the unpredictability of mental illness as a simple plot device, picking it up and dropping it as needed. The Lodge argues that human brokenness is bigger and sadder and scarier than many artists and audiences are ready to deal with. And that anybody who attempts to half-heartedly engage with it does so at his own peril.