I’ll get to my specific thoughts about The Lodgers in a second. But, first this:
These are but some of the buzzwords we reviewers and film fans repeatedly use to describe the artsier, more patient wing of the horror genre. Some horror films devote all of their attention to time-tested thrills, creature effects, and gore and deliver that up to audiences with unrestrained glee; others favor lush cinematography, gorgeous production design, and impeccably paced dread which only gives way to traditional scares at the end. The former wants to yell “Boo” and laugh when you scream whereas the latter wants to dig deep down into your very core and forever unnerve you. The former is what we generally think of when we talk about horror movies; the latter is something more complicated.
So, we’ve developed a shorthand for how to talk about those kinds of movies, yet this always seems to play out the same exact way: a subgroup of slow cinema devotees raise expectations through their sheer enthusiasm and film circle influence, but then the wider audience reacts with yawns and Letterboxd reviews like “That was the most boring thing I’ve ever seen” or “I don’t normally fall asleep during movies, but….” (actual quotes, btw).
This familiar dance played out over the weekend with two new movies. The first, The Lodgers, is Netflix’s Irish period piece about a twin brother and sister living alone together in a mysterious, supernatural mansion which seems to be controlling them. It’s the sophomore effort from Let Us Prey director Brian O’Malley. The second is The Little Strangers, Lenny Abrahamson’s post-Room project about a country doctor (Domhnall Gleeson) visiting a supposedly haunted English manor overseen by Ruth Wilson in 1948. Both have been described by reviewers as, you guessed it, “gothic,” “atmospheric,” and “slow-burn.” Their respective Rotten Tomatoes consensus opinions are practically dog whistles shouting “Stay far away!” to those who prefer jump scares over atmosphere:
The Little Strangers
Some of the raves seem to be dripping with “Finally, I get to use my English degree” analysis (not that I, the guy with a site called We Minored In Film, can really throw shade): “A hypnotic and haunting tale of how the past can grab hold of the flesh-and-blood present and squeeze. Don’t let this mesmerizing mystery slip between the cracks of studio neglect and marketing indifference. It’s spellbinding,” shouts Rolling Stones’ Peter Travers of The Little Strangers.
“Seeps with oppressive, moldy atmosphere, and with the sense that adulthood’s inexorable approach will bring eternal horror for this young duo, as the cycles of familial abuse rise like damp to infect each new generation with its own monstrousness,” observes SciFi Now’s Anton Bitel of The Lodgers.
Yeah, but are they scary?
So often, that’s all audiences ask of their horror movies. It’s why film nerds like myself have to repeatedly explain why it’s okay and possibly even more rewarding when something like Split lacks traditional scares but makes up for it with character and mood. Sometimes, we just fall back on a helpful shorthand, our own Amazon-like “If you like x you might also like y” formula.
For example, will you like The Lodgers and/or The Little Strangers? Well, how do you feel about The Others, The Innocents, or any other adaptations of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw? If you like those, you’re in business. What are your thoughts on period piece horror movies starring pasty British people being haunted in some isolated, centuries-old mansion, like The Woman in Black or The Awakening? If that’s your jam, then you don’t even really need to read any reviews. You’ll dig The Lodgers and The Little Strangers, imperfections and all.
Except, of course, we’re not all binary in our preferences. It’s possible to appreciate all manner of horror films, to love The Others as much as you do A Quiet Place. Or to at least keep an open mind about the possibilities of each sub-genre – to love gore, but not senseless violence, to dig atmosphere and methodical storytelling, but not self-indulgent, slow filmmaking. And an Amazon-style recommendation formula isn’t enough information to satisfy those varied tastes.
Now, finally, I get to my Lodgers review.
Unfortunately, I can’t provide any more than that for The Little Strangers as I haven’t had the chance to see it yet. The Lodgers, however, I have seen. There is, indeed, plenty of haunting imagery married to a narrative that begs for patience from the viewer. As with many films like this, the wait needs to be worth it, and The Lodgers falls a tad fat for me in that department. Still, wonderfully spooky water imagery recurs throughout.
The official plot synopsis:
1920, rural Ireland. Anglo-Irish twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) share a strange existence in their crumbling family estate. Each night, the property becomes the domain of a sinister presence (The Lodgers) which enforces three rules upon the twins: they must be in bed by midnight; they may not permit an outsider past the threshold; and if one attempts to escape, the life of the other is placed in jeopardy. When troubled war veteran Sean (Eugene Simon) returns to the nearby village, he is immediately drawn to the mysterious Rachel, who in turn begins to break the rules set out by The Lodgers.
This setup gives The Lodgers the initial feel of a mystery. Basically, to be as non-academic about it as possible, what the hell is up with these twins and their creepy ass house? This mystery turns into a sexual awakening, a coming-of-age story about Rachel pursuing Sean and attempting to escape the rules forced on by her family tradition. At the same time, Doug Bradley shows up as the guard of the family trust attempting to open the twins’ eyes to their dire financial straits. However, whenever Rachel thinks about running she looks up to see something truly haunting like this:
And her mentally disturbed brother is constantly throwing unsettling incest vibes her way.
So, ya know, life could be better.
This recurring water imagery combined with Edward’s vaguely threatening energy ensures The Lodgers never dips into tedium unless you’re just truly not into slower horror movies at all. The threat is ever-present; the fun of the movie is learning the backstory and finally getting a full look at the supernatural menace in the finale.
Whether you go on that journey with the film is up to you, but I found it a rewarding experience, and I’ve tried to avoid using as many as the standard gothic horror movies Madlib descriptors as possible.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- The Lodgers was released by Dread Central Presents, Epic Pictures’ horror label run by ShockWaves podcaster and former blogger/entertainment journalist Rob Galluzzo.
- I first became aware of The Lodgers thanks to this MovieWeb list: “10 Best Horror Movies of 2018 You’ve Already Missed.” Other selections include three films I have seen: one I loved (The Ritual), another I liked (Ghost Stories), and finally one I found slightly disappointing (Wildling).
What about you? Have you watched The Lodgers yet? Do you just want to know what was with all that water? Does the title of the film keep reminding you of the title of the Doctor Who episode where Matt Smith and James Corden hang out, play a little soccer, and fight an invisible monster? Me too!