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This article contains major spoilers for The Lodge. It also contains discussion of self-harm.

Horror movies often rely on physical violence and cruelty to horrify their audiences. That’s fair; we all have bodies, and we’re afraid of them getting damaged. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Lodge, however, isn’t particularly violent. It isn’t particularly bloody. There are no monsters, and barely any “scares.” Yet it hits harder, conjuring dread on a deeper level, than any conventional horror film of late. An intimate and emotional nightmare, the film wrings audiences into stunned submission, proving that psychological cruelty can hurt far worse than the physical.

Seven minutes into The Lodge, Alicia Silverstone’s character Laura shoots herself. As a cinematic moment, it’s devastatingly effective. Coming after a stretch of onscreen business so low-key the audience’s minds are left to wander, Laura fetches and fires the gun with such rapid nonchalance, it jolts the audience back to horrified attention. Personally speaking, having dealt with suicidal ideation frequently, it’s a devastating moment. For the next hundred-odd minutes, I felt like I was physically sinking into the cinema floor, my field of view a tunnel pointed directly at the screen. 

Laura’s suicide hangs over every other event thenceforth. The surrounding circumstances – her divorce from investigative reporter husband Richard (Richard Armitage), Richard’s new relationship with his research subject Grace (Riley Keogh), and the attendant repercussions for children Aiden and Mia (Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh) – do not end with it. Attempting to recuperate, the remaining family members head to their remote winter lodge, just as Aiden learns Grace is the traumatised sole survivor of a cult that ended in mass suicide. When Richard leaves for business, the already uncomfortable and fractious holiday lurches southward. Grace’s attempts to make peace fail, the kids stage open rebellion, and more chillingly, all their possessions and food mysteriously disappear overnight.

Before the credits roll, The Lodge will nearly become two different, lesser films. One is an eerie chiller about death, guilt, and haunting; the other, a movie wherein mental illness manifests as “craziness” and murder. Both of those developments unfold, but they’re elevated and connected through a twist more harrowing than either.

Knowing someone’s emotional vulnerabilities can enable close friendship. It can also enable vicious bullying. The Lodge deals almost exclusively with the latter. As tensions rise between Grace and the children, she becomes more dependent on her medication, and when it disappears along with everything else, her anxiety reaches critical levels. The appearance of their own newspaper obituaries suggests the trio died in a fire as they slept, and by the time Aiden pronounces the lodge to be a bleak and endless purgatory, Grace believes it absolutely. Once she flees into snow and delusion, we learn the awful truth. Aiden and Mia have been gaslighting Grace the entire time, hiding all their belongings in a crawlspace and performing an elaborate act to drive her to despair – and, ultimately, self-destruction.

This is the horror at the centre of The Lodge: two children, grieving their mother’s suicide and enraged by their father’s new partner, attempting to visit their mother’s fate upon their would-be stepmom. That horror is well observed, expertly executed, and completely crushing.

Cruelty is worst when it’s personal, and The Lodge‘s cruelty is intensely so. Aiden’s research into Grace’s past traumas provides him with all the ammunition he needs to vicious exploit her most private fears, wounding her where she’s most vulnerable. He intentionally exacerbates Grace’s anxiety, even as he secrets away her medication. His grand fiction needles her suicide-cult past, painting a religious picture of sin and punishment, hijacking her survivor’s guilt and propensity for social ideation to push her toward what his own experience has taught him is the worst fate imaginable. Finally, by feeding Grace’s delusion that she’s already dead – a depression that frequently fuels suicides in reality – he singlehandedly sets in motion terrible suffering for all.

The film’s great magic trick is that we too are gaslit, by our understanding and expectation of the very tricks films play on us. Almost as soon as the kids’ ruse commences at the film’s midpoint, decades of post-Sixth Sense ghost movies have trained us to interpret their otherworldly isolation as a sign they’re all dead. When Aiden produces his fake obituary, we roll our eyes at the incredibly obvious twist we all saw coming a mile away, and settle in for a frostier retread of The Others. 

Until the film’s third act, the children are our surrogates, working through timeworn supernatural nonsense alongside an interloper they blame for their mother’s death. But the moment their unthinkable deception dawns on us, they become firm antagonists. As the film ends, Grace has killed Richard, and the implication is that she’ll kill the kids, and herself, in a recreation of the cult suicide whose memory looms tall. The story now belongs to Grace. Perhaps it always did.

A charitable viewer would describe Aiden and his partially (but not entirely) naive co-conspirator Mia as kids whose practical joke goes awry, but that viewer would be wrong. When the situation gets out of control, Aiden attempts to self-justify with the “just a prank” defense, but it’s clear his underlying intentions were always to destroy Grace, however improbable he thought her actual death. Even if he only wanted to spook Grace a little, suicide is the ultimate endpoint of seeing how far you can push a person. Given his mother’s means of death, he absolutely knew this. His childish, spiteful revenge fantasy – “wouldn’t it be funny if we made Grace kill herself like Mom did” – has real, mortal consequences. There’s no practicable difference between planting suicidal thoughts as a prank and planting them as a genuine attempt to kill.

This all hurts through its cruelty, but also through relatability. Abusive relationships are constantly defined by gaslighting similar in methodology. On the internet, Aiden’s blithe disregard for consequences is everywhere, like “ironic” racism sliding into real racism, or heavily-researched and personally targeted harassment campaigns, or channers cheering on potential school shooters because they think it’s funny. Jaeden Martell’s very-online alt-right teen in Knives Out probably does the same shit as Aiden. 

Aiden, and to a lesser degree Mia, are for my money the most deeply monstrous “evil kids” in horror cinema. It’s not that they’re creepy, or violent, or unsightly, because they’re not those things; they just manipulate their nemesis with psychologically surgical precision. Franz and Fiala manipulate us in a similar way, building up empathy for the kids’ sad plight before pulling the rug from under us. There are plenty of “scarier” horror films than The Lodge. But few feature cruelty as sharp, as personal, or as gut-wrenching. Destroying me the way it did, it made my list of the best films I saw in 2019. I never want to see it again.

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