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Non-Review Review: The Lodgers

The Lodgers is a beautifully-directed and somewhat muddled gothic horror film.

The Lodgers literally drips with atmosphere, as one might imagine given the combination of writer David Turpin and director Brian O’Malley. Turpin has studied and lectured in English, writing his doctoral thesis on therianthropy. O’Malley directed Let Us Prey, one of the most visually striking and memorable Anglo-Irish horror films of the past couple of years. As such, a gothic horror set against the backdrop of Irish Independence seems very much in keeping with their aesthetics, and it does not disappoint.

The fall of the house of Lodgers.

The Lodgers is a rich piece of work, both in terms of visuals and themes. Like any good horror story, the subtext simmers through the work, O’Malley and Turpin tapping into rich veins of social and political anxiety, often weaving those threads together in a compelling and exciting manner. The Lodgers might be best described as the work of Edgar Allan Poe channeled through a seance with William Butler Yeats. It feels undeniably Irish, rooted in the land and its people.

At the same time, The Lodgers suffers slightly in its own internal mechanics. Like the big house at the centre of the story, the construction is largely sound. However, there is a sense that some upkeep and maintenance might be required. The Lodgers is undercut by a number of key defects including its casting and its dialogue. The Lodgers is visually striking and rich, but it stumbles in some of its more basic elements.

Stairway to heaven.

The Lodgers is set primarily in a big country manner during the second decade of the twentieth century. The island is in political turmoil, caught between the ravages of the First World War upon Great Britain and the thoughts of revolution taking root across Ireland. It is certainly an evocative setting, and it is interesting that so few genre pieces have chosen to engage with this rich and defining chapter of Irish history, its contradictions and its horror perfectly lending themselves to exploration through metaphor and lyric.

The Lodgers unfolds primarily within what remains of a big house, one of the countless large country manners maintained by the Anglo-Irish “Ascendency”, the upper property-owning classes that identify more readily with the crown than the land. Rachel and Edward are the two surviving heirs of the family that own the property, living within the decaying structure. Edward is wary of the world that exists beyond the concrete walls of the structure, while Rachel yearns to be free of the constraints imposed upon her.

Into the forest we go.

The Lodgers understands the horror baked into this premise, of characters at once rooted in a land without belonging to that land. “A return to England might be the best idea,” suggests the family solicitor at one point. “We are not English, Mister Bermingham,” Edward awkwardly replies. Bermingham responds, “Not English by birth, but for all intents and purposes…” Rachel finds her relationship with the local villagers strained, set apart by her birth and her class.

Rachel and Edward are clearly “othered.” In that grand horror movie tradition, the siblings find themselves trapped between two worlds. To the local villagers, Rachel and Edward are not “Irish.” However, it is very clear that they are not “British” either. When their solicitor advises them to sell the property, he assures them that they have the legal right to liquidate their holdings. “By his laws, maybe,” Edward tells Rachel. “Not by ours.” Rachel and Edward seem unsure of exactly what they are.

The most haunted house in Ireland.

The Lodgers balances its gothic obligations quite cannily. The Lodgers is very clearly an archetypal gothic horror story, permeated with familiar iconography and imagery. Early in the film, it is suggested that something haunts the grounds of the property; as the movie continues, the audience grows to suspect that it might be the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe. The ruined property evokes The Fall of the House of Usher; the dark secret under the floorboards recalls The Tell-Tale Heart; Edward’s most recent pet conjures images of The Raven.

The Lodgers is permeated by gothic imagery and subtext. Desire and repression go hand in hand, often birthing grotesque horrors. The Lodgers is delightfully creepy, embracing its Freudian horrors. The horrors lurking in the big house are unsettling even beyond their overt uncanny qualities, The Lodgers evoking the uncomfortable subtext of its horror through symbolism and imagery. “That nightgown was mother’s,” Edward remarks on sneaking into his sister’s room. Water rises from beneath the house, eels lurking and lunging within.

Brotherly love.

At the same time, The Lodgers is also conscious of its own political context and subtext, reflecting on how the tropes and conventions of gothic horror are amplified and enriched by this particular setting. As with a lot of Irish horror, particularly last year’s impressive Without Name, The Lodgers understands that Irish anxieties are often tied to the land and the soil of the island, to the fear that the ground beneath the population might betray its masters; whether in yielding to the dominion of foreign powers or withholding its essential bounty.

This co-dependence and uncertainty is a distinctly Irish anxiety, tied to historical and political realities. The Lodgers allows this subtext to simmer through the screenplay. Mister Bermingham is horrified when he visits the property, surveying the ruins in which the family live. “Simply or otherwise, there is nothing here to live on.” Edward seems to accept the reality that he and his sister are tethered to the landscape. “This place belongs to us, and us to it.” It is not reassuring.

Holding on together.

O’Malley does excellent work, sweeping the camera through this dilapidated structure and wandering across the haunted landscape. The Lodgers literally drips with atmosphere, benefiting from a palpable and inescapable sense of dread that threatens to suffocate the audience from the earliest moments of the film. Turpin’s screenplay is ambitious and rich, layered with imagery and iconography that makes The Lodgers feels like some lost classic fairytale of a bygone era.

However, The Lodgers suffers from a number of significant problems. A lot of the cast is effective, particularly Charlotte Vega and David Bradley; Vega conveys a rich emotional life that is largely suggested (rather than explicitly demonstrated) by the script, while Bradley understands exactly how best to pitch his performance for the film in which he finds himself. However, the casting is not uniformly impressive. In particular, Eugene Simon is miscast in a potentially interesting role; Simon is not convincing as a local, even one alienated by service to the crown.

Walking on water.

These casting mistakes are somewhat compounded by some of the nuts-and-bolts issues with the otherwise rich and ambitious screenplay. On paper, Sean Nally is a vaguely interesting character; an Irishman who fought for the British in the First World Ward, and who lost his leg in the fighting. Indeed, The Lodgers very cleverly uses Sean’s phantom limb as a metaphor for the strange connection that Rachel and Edward feel to the land and their ancestors. “You know how it feels, don’t you?” Rachel asks. “For something to still be there even when it’s gone?”

However, while the thematic dialogue is well-constructed and very much in keeping with the stylistic sensibilities of the genre, The Lodgers struggles to make its human interactions especially convincing. This is particularly true of the central romance between Rachel and Sean. To be fair, part of the issue is the casting of Eugene Simon, but the dialogue is just awful. “You wouldn’t follow me all the way home, limping like that, would you?” Rachel asks Sean. “I would if you asked me too,” Sean responds. “And if I didn’t?” she presses. “I’d ask if I may,” he answers.

Moe Dunford, Moe Problems.

There are a whole host of exchanges like this in The Lodgers, suggesting that Turpin was trying to pitch a more heightened and exaggerated romance between Rachel and Sean, perhaps evoking the florid prose of the gothic tales that inspired The Lodgers. Whatever the intent, the end result is jarring and awkward. “You looked afraid,” Rachel observes of her handsome suitor. “I was afraid that you’d be afraid of me,” Sean replies. These sequences stop the film dead, and the romance is too central to The Lodgers to properly insulate the damage.

Still, The Lodgers is an impressive and atmospheric piece of work, arguably a film that works much better as a tone poem than as a story. The film is creepy and unsettling, firmly understanding its context and its surroundings. The film understands its imagery and its iconography. The biggest problem is that it never seems to fully understand its characters, at least not as people.

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2 Responses

  1. Their law is how they’re governed by the house. Not a country. That was Edwards point when speaking about Bermingham to Rachel.

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