Lightning Doesn’t Strike Twice for the makers of THE LODGE.

Image from Polygon

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are the directing duo who in 2015 chilled the entire nation with their debut movie Goodnight, Mommy. That little horror movie, which initially made its New York premiere during New Directors / New Films, introduced a clever bit of storytelling about the tenuous love-hate relationship that can happen between a struggling parent and her twin boys. The atmosphere was packed to the gills with dread dripping from every frame and there were hints that there might be something… off about the mother, who during the most of the movie was acting rather strange. Adding to that a near complete isolation from the outside world (although that house the directors picked truly is gorgeous) and an impending sense that something terrible could happen to the two brothers you had a solid little chiller that made a lasting impact while also bumming the nation with its rather horrifying ending.

The premise of their follow up, The Lodge, a movie that made its premiere at Sundance last year, is almost identical at the bare-bones level. Here we have a family devoid of warmth entering a lodge located in the middle of nowhere. Husband and wife Richard and Laura (Richard Armitage and Alicia Silverstone in a striking cameo that suggests madness just underneath her placid features) enter the frame, and you already know something is off about their body language. They’re not happy to have come here, and the father has something he needs to discuss with the wife. What he discusses is pretty much the stuff that drove the wife of Lamb to the Slaughter to the extreme, but instead of applying all that pent up rage on the husband… she smiles, goes up to her room, and blows her brains out in one cold shot.

That sets the entire movie for the events that are next to unfold. With the wife not even cold in the grave, the Richard has taken up with Grace (Riley Keough), a young woman who as a girl was the only survivor of a cult of the likes that tend to drink the kool-aid in the false belief that they will ascend to heaven, their sins purged. His two young children, Aidan an Mia (Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh) accuse Grace of being responsible of their mothers suicide, and are distraught that she will not ascend to Heaven. In an effort to bond, Richard takes his soon-to-be-wife and two kids up to the same lodge where the previous events occurred, because that is what you do when you want your family to come together. Grace is already showing some signs she’s a bit ‘off’ herself and we realize she is heavily medicated. You really wonder what on Earth was Richard thinking when he decided to replace Laura with Grace with disastrous consequences.

Image from Polygon

At first, not much really happens, but hints are thrown that perhaps there is something supernatural afoot. The dog growls at something unseen in the night, and Grace almost falls through the ice while attempting to retrieve Mia’s doll replica of Laura. When Richard leaves for work, the simmering hostility that was hinted between the kids and Grace takes center stage and soon the movie turns into a perverse version of Turn of the Screw with the two terrorizing themselves and Grace as things go bump in the night, the house loses power, time stops, and she begins to start having nightmares about her father that have her awakening in the middle of the night outside in the cold, with no idea how she got there. For the most, the setup is solid, if a bit aloof, and I was perfectly okay with that because disorientation and isolation make for excellent horror (and if not check The Lighthouse). It’s when matters threaten to get out of hand (and then they do) that the movie somehow doesn’t quite know how to catch up to its own predicament. We’re then left with a story heading into a chilling third act, a rather lazy revelation, and then this sudden act of violence that is supposed to somehow be horrifying but instead feels tacked on.

For the most part, the movie is a solid watch and everyone is on point, particularly Riley Keough as the damaged young woman at the centre of the maelstrom. When she first appears we’ve received so much negative information about her that we really aren’t prepared for her character to emerge as a rather soft spoken person who is just trying to act normal in a rather tense situation. [Although, this could have also gone the opposite way and have her underplay her part until we got a big reveal; it’s been done before many times.] My only issue would be how her character goes so far off the deep end once the supernatural and her own mental instability (plus other factors) collide in a perfect storm. I could, however, see a parallel between Grace’s character and Laura’s: both are victims of religion, which festers all over the house, but the demise of the first seems to bleed into the slow meltdown of the second.

Franz and Fiala clearly have solid views on how to explore the topic of family units dissolving into madness and victims of perverse systems castigating themselves for sins they have no control over. However, the latter half of the movie wrings all the suspense and the dread out of its center, rendering a family tragedy a rather cold mess that doesn’t even feature an adequate, emotional pay-off. However, if you compare The Lodge with what’s on now, this one shines with flying colors.

On its own, The Lodge is effective, but not exactly logical or memorable.

In Case you missed them in Theaters (as I did)…

Sofia Boutells in Climax

For the past few posts I’ve been talking about the horror that the new year begins with terrible new releases that only serve to fill in gaps as older releases, all of them from the October – December trimester, continue to play to justify award season demands (and the upsurge that a win can produce). Case in point, Parasite. At the start of the year, Parasite was playing — still to packed audiences, mind you, the movie has not lost much in momentum with the public — in a little more than 150 theaters. Come the end of January it expanded to 1,000 theaters, and then suddenly, throughout the entirety of February, to twice that amount. In that time we have had a litany of forgettable movies come and go with an incredible swiftness to the point it almost begged the question, “Why bother at all to release this pile of crap when you could have just opened more slots for Parasite and still make good money?” Of course, I will answer my own question. Movies picked up for distribution — even the truly awful ones — must get their just release (unless other forces are at work which make it then stuck in limbo). They have to play for the requisite seven to 14 days, take the money they can make, and run. And make the remainder of their impact via VOD platforms.

So, imagine the choices when your truly has seen all of the critically acclaimed films making their January/February bows. I’d already seen Clemency a year ago at a sneak peek (and my review of that one is pending and will appear shortly after a second view), The New York Film Festival entries Beanpole, The Traitor, Vitalina Varela, and I Was Home, But… are now in theaters come this writing. Of all these, I have not seen the last one and plan to before it exits the Lincoln Center. Aside from that, there is next to nothing for someone who enjoys good independent and foreign movies (and even an occasional misfire). What is someone like me to do?

Give any VODs and older releases making their appearance on home rentals a chance and see what it was that I missed, and feel safe knowing that if the rental didn’t really live up to my expectations, at least I didn’t;t have to shelve out almost 17.00 to go see it and walk out a bit underwhelmed.

So let’s start: Here are the rentals I have had a chance to see, which if you have not, you should.

VILLAINS, Dan Berk and Robert Olson, USA

Dan Berk and Robert Olson have come up with a rather clever premise of two somewhat dim-witted, in-the-moment thrill seekers who have a thing for holding up convenience stores without much thought of what may happen afterwards. In some ways, they may call unto question a slight — but note, very slight — relation to some of the less ingenious criminals living in the Tarantino universe, but I don’t want to be too unfair and take away from the Berk-Olson team who have come up with an original effort worthy of note in mirrors meeting their own darker reflection.

Mickey and Jules (Bill Skarsgard and Maika Monroe, a frequent actress in the horror genre) are a pair of inept criminals who wouldn’t know the way out of a scenario if they were staring at it right in the face. While they make out with some cash from a gas station after holding it up, their luck soon runs out. It turns out… they forgot to load up their getaway vehicle with the one thing they would need to make a clean split from the area and hide out in the middle of no man’s land while waiting to commit their next score. And that, my friends, is probably the one thing that would make us wonder if in fact these two are too stupid to live.

However, their luck turns for the better when they come across a stately home off the road. Logic states, where there is a house, there must be food, and a place to hide out for the night and if things get messy… hold the inhabitants captive, right?

Berk and Olson establish a rather suspenseful scenario not without some comedic elements in having their two hapless lovebirds do a home invasion that results in the two of them stumbling on a little certain detail that derails their plans in a rather steep way. When they eventually meet the home owners (Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan, both old enough to be Skarsgard and Monroe’s parents), at first they make demands on their find, and quickly find out they may be in over their heads. It all threatens to get a little out of control and I kept expecting the directors to go into French New Intensity with violence that would be just on the limits of bearable, but they instead stick to a scenario that includes power reversals, quease-inducing sexual acts of bondage, and Monroe’s sudden discovery of a moral side to her that propels the story headlong into a battle of wills in which anything might happen. Villains and its quartet of actors know they’re in a B-movie, and they all do the best they can with their characters without attempting to justify why they even got there in the first place. For the slog that theaters are in, this is the perfect rental for a cold Friday night.

CLIMAX, Gaspar Noé, France (2018)

You probably won’t want to see Gaspar Noé’s Climax, because if you know anything about his work is that he intends to shock, and often succeeds. If you recall Irreversible (2002), Monica Bellucci endured a rape scene that was unwatchable and he kept the camera dead on that terrible scene for ten excruciating minutes. The debates about why such violence against women had to be filmed ran rampant amongst those who saw the film, especially when it was a man doing the directing… and then, last year, Jennifer Kent did something just as shocking with her movie The Nightingale in which her heroine gets raped, twice, and that is still not the worst thing to happen in her miserable but historically significant story.

Nothing here comes even close to the in-your-face events of Irreversible, and yet, the movie still manages to deliver its shocks in a somewhat minor key. It’s almost as if Noé had stepped back and instead of filming some of its horror up close and personal, he chose to let his drone camera wander throughout a late 90s rave party that spirals out of control when someone spikes the booze (not a spoiler; the movie is free of spoilers) and focus on the vignettes that start to escalate in intensity with a certain detachedness. It’s probably for the best; one of the deaths involves an innocent and occurs off-screen, but it still manages to shock because of how utter lacking it is in human empathy, how bottomless its cruelty is. Another hard to stomach scene involves a pregnant party goer who gets assaulted in a rather horrifying manner only to have this repeated by a crowd and finally, by her own hand. Not your average party.

If this good cinema? If you like transgressive cinema, then yes, it will appeal to you, I personally was more amazed by the dancers themselves; I haven’t seen moves this unique since the early 90s when Vogueing was the rage thanks to Madonna stealing it from gay culture and pretending she came up with it. Acting-wise, no one really stands out; Sofia Boutella as Selva is the only thing that comes close to a lead and her character is thinly developed. If Noé can focus less on releasing the hounds of hell that he introduces musically when Cerrone’s Supernature takes a hold of the dancefloor, then we may care a bit more of what happens to these doomed party people. Noé is so enamored by the chaos waiting just around the corner, which happens midway through his 90 minutes of running time, we lose a bit of the human part of it, and all we get left are frenzied bodies contorting on the floor, babbling, self-destructing on acid.

You may ask yourself what was the point of it all, and perhaps there is no point other than to show nihilism as a night to remember or forget. In that, Noé’s two dance-oriented pictures are bookends that showcase what it might be if hell were here on Earth run by a deranged ringleader south of Buñuel at his sickest.