The Lodge and Relic: Horror beyond horror
With a metaphorical form of horror that delves into the psychological realm to approach similar moral themes, The Lodge and Relic are two of the most outstanding examples of the horror genre in 2020.
In the latest episode of Marea Nocturna, Desirée de Fez and company meet to talk about the horror films and trends that defined the convoluted 2020. One of the issues addressed by this group of genre cinema experts reflects an issue that is at the center of current debates around horror cinema: the discussion “pure horror vs. metaphorical horror”, with the latter referring to the increasingly growing tendency to use horror as a means to talk about other issues, generally anchored in the current socio-political reality. It is an issue that leads us to rethink the traditional ways of categorizing the genre in the face of a wave of cinematographic proposals that are included in it, but that move away, to a greater or lesser extent, from the codes that have traditionally defined horror in its purest sense.
Two examples that speak directly about this are The Lodge and Relic, films that in 2020 have brought these discussions to light to ask ourselves: What can or cannot be called "horror" today? Are we facing an irruption in the genre by films that should not be considered a part of it? Or, on the contrary, could we speak of a transcendence of horror, typical of the genre and through which it expands and enriches itself more and more? The Lodge and Relic are two films that show the ways in which horror can effectively transcend to other spaces, without neglecting the codes of the genre to which they owe their existence. And in the case of these two films, the other genre with which terror is superimposed is that of the psychological drama. One that also keeps the theme of family relationships at the center of both the narrative and the type of horror employed.
The Lodge is the second installment from the Austrian directorial duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the minds behind the acclaimed Goodnight, Mommy (2014). The film follows Grace -played by Riley Keough- as she spends a few days alone with her fiancé's two children in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, where they will soon begin to experience unusual events. From the beginning, the film sets an intense and distressing tone that will intensify as the story unfolds. This is achieved in large part thanks to the sound design and the soundtrack: elements that help create a sense of atmosphere and tension that remind us of directors like Ari Aster -who, moreover, has become the current reference in psychological horror-. Thus, with only two works in their filmography, it is clear that for Franz and Fiala horror is used as a means to explore moral subjects. In both of their films, a series of recurring themes can be identified, such as: the blurred or undiscovered identity, the unsolved past, and the role of the mother. Topics that are analyzed through the lens of family relationships. In The Lodge in particular, there is a double level to this: on the one hand, there is what appears to be the central relationship of the film, namely that of Grace with her future family. But, on the other, there is also the family relationship from her past: one that, as it will be revealed, never abandons her, and that little by little will take center stage in the development of the story.
These are the issues tackled also by Relic, even when it does so from a completely different perspective and morals. Australian director Natalie Erika James' debut features an essentially matriarchal family, made up of three characters, Edna, Kay and Sam, who portray three different generations. In the film, mother and daughter go to the family's country house to look for their grandmother, who has mysteriously disappeared, only to begin learning troubling facts and attitudes about her throughout history. In Relic, it is particularly remarkable how the camera movements correspond to what is happening. During the first three-quarters of the film, the camera is mostly static, creating, as in The Lodge, a feeling of anguish and confusion. Meanwhile, at the climax there is a shift towards a much more frenetic movement that reflects what the characters are experiencing, while intensifying that anguish in the viewer as well.
Relic is much less explicit than The Lodge. It is equally ambiguous in its outcome and in its development, making the viewer wonder, scene after scene, what is it that is happening: Is it the house that is haunted? Is it something that belongs to the family? Is it relevant that they are only women? Spoiler alert: It is likely that we do not have an answer, unlike the Franz and Fiala film, in which the explanation behind everything that happened is very clearly revealed. But judging which of the two resolutions works better is not the issue here. Rather, we want to show how both films present an exercise in contained or controlled horror: a type of horror that does not unfold in its entirety at peak moments or in simple jump scares, but one that allows an aura of anxiety and tension to be maintained throughout the film. An aura that accompanies the family conflict located at the center of the story, resulting in a horror with a marked psychological and emotional tone.
In the aforementioned Marea Nocturna podcast, Ángel Sala (director of Sitges Film Festival) spoke of the debate referred to here to argue that today many films are being classified under the label "horror" when in reality they do not deserve it. However, one can choose to see this issue from a different perspective, when it is observed that what many films are doing today is subverting those traditional codes of horror cinema, in order to establish a clear break with that classification and sub-classification (supernatural, slasher, etc.) that we are so used to. This is what makes films like The Lodge or Relic work, regardless of whether or not their employed horror is effective for the viewer -which is something that the viewer himself decides-. Each film, both outstanding examples in an otherwise unremarkable year for cinema in general, establish a dialogue with a multiplicity of genres: drama, psychological horror, supernatural horror, body horror ... What is presented, ultimately, and what makes them work, is the game with the limits between what is actually happening and what the characters are imagining, which at times is almost imperceptible to the viewer, thus allowing him/her to enter that game of questioning what he/she is seeing; or, in other words, what kind of movie he/she is watching. Here is where these proposals find their value: inasmuch as they challenge not only the need for classification, but also the idea of a pure and untouchable type of horror. And this is something innovative in a genre where we often believe that there can be nothing new.
*Marea Nocturna is a podcast from Radio Primavera Sound, dedicated to horror movies. To listen to the latest episode, posted on December 19th 2020, check out Spotify.