Not really easy jump scares | Daily News

Not really easy jump scares

Aunt and nephew: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
The Lodge
The Lodge

The dollhouse at the beginning of The Lodge (2020) reminds you of the opening scene of Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2019). But it’s wholly coincidental: Hereditary was still in postproduction when the directors of The Lodge, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, were wrapping up. The mood and the texture are different too: Ari Aster’s blend of supernatural horror and family feud looks, and feels, a world or two away from Franz-Fiala’s more restrained drama. Like all good horror, The Lodge doesn’t slip into easy jump scares; it grabs our attention because of, and not despite, its ambiance. The first half, in particular, is a tour de force: it simply goes on unnerving us, pitting child against adult and paving the way for the second half.

The performances are pivotal to the drama. As the well-meaning but misunderstood father, Richard Armitage is away half the time. The children’s stepmother, Riley Keough, succeeds their mother (Alicia Silverstone in an all too brief appearance); it is she who epitomises and sums up the conflict at the heart of the story. But the real stars are the two children, Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh. You’ll remember Martell from It (2017); in that flick he played Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Losers Club. There he was responsible, peaceable, and for the most, charismatic. Here he is anything but. How he and his sister try to find common ground with their stepmother, and how they fail, and most importantly how that failure leads to the story’s shocking conclusion, should be watched and not spoilt.

Saccharine-coated revisions

What intrigues me about The Lodge, however, is less its horror than its fairy tale overtones. Fairy tales, the myths we identify with quite intimately as children, revolve around two big themes: the Double and the Changeling. The original Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm stories are far different to the saccharine coated revisions they have undergone over the centuries and decades. Yet these two themes somehow survive; think of “The Shadow”, where a scholar finds his place being overtaken, slowly, by his shadow.

Regi Siriwardena has made a convincing case for the similarity between this story and the conflicting divisions in the very personality of the tale’s author, Anderson. If the comparison stands, the other theme crops up as significantly as does that: the fear, the horror, of a step-fatherly, step-motherly, even changeling figure taking over the family. Driven to poverty at an early age, Anderson often wondered whether he was adopted. It is this fear and dread of stepparent and changeling figures which makes itself felt half-an-hour into The Lodge. “I just feel like things are very uncomfortable between us,” Grace, the stepmother, informs Aiden, the boy. “I just want to know if there’s something I can do to make that better, or what your problem is.” Aiden’s reply is as evasive as it is abrupt: “Hormones.”

Watching The Lodge, I was surprised at how similar it seemed, not to Hereditary, but to the movies of Yorgos Lanthimos. The movie’s cinematographer, Thimios Bakatakis, has worked with Yorgos, and it is this which springs up in all those harrowing snow-covered roads and haunting interiors. Like The Shining (1980) and almost every other Stanley Kubrick film, the camera shifts constantly from long shot to close-up, making the characters, who are almost always shot, not at eye level, but from above or below, fidgety, nervous: as if they are being watched. There’s another comparison for the movie, of course: Goodnight Mommy (2014). Here the similarities are too coincidental to ignore, and for good reason: Goodnight Mommy was made by the same director-duo and it reeks of the same fairy-tale-dollhouse-childhood-innocence-overturned ambiance their latest venture exudes.

Unusual combination

Hailing from Austria, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have a cool 20 years between them: they are aunt and nephew, a rather unusual combination if ever there was one. If interviews and biographical sketches are anything to go by, they have always been fervent cinephiles, Severin in particular. In well more than one article the duo have talked about their inbred passion for European and American cinema, and how this crops up quite unobtrusively yet unmistakeably, despite their own ignorance of it, in their work.

Born in 1965 in Vienna, Veronika Franz worked for some time at Kurier, a German language newspaper, in the late 1990s. Her husband Ulrich Seidi became a director before she would, and the two of them collaborated on a couple or so pictures. The realities of marriage life hit them when they bore two sons. Looking out for a babysitter, Seidi and Franz took in Severin Fiala, Seidi’s biological nephew, for the job. At the time Fiala was 13 or 14. Having grown up in the countryside around an hour from the Austrian capital, he nursed a deep passion for movies, having exhausted his hometown’s video-store. Vienna had bigger video-stores, and soon aunt and nephew hit upon a deal: instead of paying him, the two of them would visit the nearest store, renting “12 to 15 movies in one weekend.”

What brought them closer to each other at this time was their love of horror. Art, trash, or kitsch, they sampled them all: “There was one evening where we watched Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, Faces by Cassavetes, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan”, along with Robert Bresson’s Lancelet du Loc (1974). Filled with an unquenchable desire to write about art and genre flicks, Severin decided to enrol himself at a film school, while Veronika worked as a film journalist. Soon enough, after meeting a controversial Austrian actor and hatching up a partnership with him, “we decided to make the films we enjoy watching.” The choice, as they put it, was between making a horror movie “that’s like a rollercoaster ride”, exciting but forgettable, and making one “that will be around for a very, very long time.” Veronika was adamant: “It has to have meaning.” To make a flick with that kind of meaning, subtle if not deep, became a challenge they met ably with Goodnight Mommy.

Filled with disbelief

The basic story of Goodnight Mommy is, as with most effective horror films, ridiculous and fairly implausible. Two brothers (yes, yes: evil twins) find it disconcerting that their mother, who returns from surgery with her face clad in bandages, and become convinced that the woman talking to them, chiding them, and chastising them, is not their mother. It doesn’t help that they’re alone in the house with her, that their father is nowhere to be found, and that the two of them engage in some nasty stuff even before they decide to interrogate the woman. Her responses aren’t to their liking, so they take the next step: they tie her up and bully her, torment her, even slash her, until she confesses. Of course she refuses to confess, and of course her refusal prolongs her torture. Filled with disbelief, she attempts to escape, but is kept on a leash. The ending, with her death, is horrifying enough; what makes it even more horrifying is the sight of the twin (emotionless, as though from a Robert Bresson film), watching her writhe in pain without as much as batting an eyelid.

I have a problem with a horror or any movie setup featuring an isolated home that looks like it belongs to a multibillionaire who decided to pitch camp outside the city in some far-off rural outpost; in that sense Goodnight Mommy feels no different from Mike Flanagan’s Hush (2015). We are compelled to ask: just how do these people live? What were the boys doing when the mother was out doing surgery (which, judging from all those bandages, seems to have cost her plenty)? Where is the father? And most importantly, what do the parents do for a living, and is it enough to sustain such a filthy rich, servant-less house?

Unlike Flanagan’s Hush, where the main character works as a writer – a job she simply could not have sustained her smart-home lifestyle with – Franz-Fiala do not resolve these issues, leaving it to the audience’s imagination. That seems to me a weakness, a plot-hole which threatens to topple the story from its make-believe world. Fortunately, The Lodge does not suffer from this limitation: the characters are more believable, and more plausible, while the relationships between them are, in keeping with a Hollywood production, explained well in advance. My only disappointment, the abruptness of the ending, doesn’t undo the first two-thirds of the plot, which consumes you as much as it consumes, and destroys, the woman, the children, and the children’s father. The Lodge may not be the most unusual horror film of 2020 – that distinction must go to Relic – but it is by far the most unnerving.