A portmanteau horror film from first-time feature writer/director Abigail Blackmore: well made and acted, but doesn’t hang together as well as one might hope.
Tales from the Lodge is a new take on a classic British model: the portmanteau horror film; that is an anthology of stories within a central, wider story. It is writer/director Abigail Blackmore’s first feature film, and I do hope she goes on to make more, better films.
The scenario is this: five friends (and the girlfriend of one) get together at an out-of-the-way holiday home to scatter the ashes of a friend who drowned in the nearby lake some time ago. They’re a sorry bunch, all weary of life and each other to some degree and wish they’d done this sooner; but they miss their friend, and make a weekend away out of it. While there, they share stories – some real anecdotes, some fantasies, some nightmarish – unaware that they are part of someone’s unpleasant agenda.
The cast is wonderful; especially Mackenzie Crook whose Joe is painfully aware of his own mortality due to a failing heart. Johnny Vegas is the other famous name, playing the coarse and apathetic Russell (the role suited him, but didn’t stretch his talents like The Drowning of Arthur Braxton did). The rest of the cast seemed to stand out only when their characters were suffering extra stress: I admired Sophie Thompson’s Emma describing the horror of being a new mum greatly. And Miki losing her cool: give me more of that!
But the stories they told were frankly unsatisfying. Most of them were great during the telling but had either a “so what” conclusion or none at all. A couple of them were truly scary, though, including a surreal vision of what Joe feared could happen with his heart (it brought Alan Moore’s Show Pieces to mind) and Paul’s opening story about lending his car to a stranger. As well as those, there was a lighthearted (but violent) zombie piece and a freaky little piece about a ghost tour.
As well as content, the stories were all utterly different in storytelling style and direction too. Each of them was directed by the actor playing the person telling the story (Johnny Vegas directed Russell’s zombie piece, for example), and so the individual character of the segments makes sense to match the storytellers. But they didn’t fit together at all, and neither did they fit into the overall cabin-by-the-lake story. As a viewer, I kept getting yanked in and out of various moods and settings. The crux of it is that – if the individual stories had been properly wrapped up – they could have worked as a series of shorts, rather than segments to an anthology.
I can’t help comparing Tales from the Lodge with last year’s more successful Ghost Stories. In that one, the pace and style changes from one segment to the next was smooth and careful, like movements in a piece of music. Also, they made sense within the overall arc and final reveal of the film, so that not only did the style fit, but the content did too. Neither of these things can be said of Tales from the Lodge, which is frankly a damn shame; especially as the characters are written so well, and the setting used so well in the film’s production. If the stories had all been set at that lake, there might have been more internal logic, perhaps?
The other aspect to Tales from the Lodge which didn’t work so well was the blend of comedy and horror. Most of the time there is no obvious comedy (just one blundering character, and one obvious farcical scene), but rather a few lighthearted and cringey moments. The mood moves in and out from these moments to tension and scares frequently, until settling into a spiraling finale. (And oddly enough, music is used to highlight the humor at times, but not so much the fear.) So what I’m saying is that it doesn’t so much blend horror and comedy as zigzags between them.
There are some images that will stay with me from Tales from the Lodge – most notably from Joe’s nightmare segment – but there’s a strong chance I will forget the rest.