Sunday, March 10, 2019

SXSW ’19: Tales from the Lodge

This weekend will sort of be like a British Big Chill, but with portents of more death to come. A group of old friends have assembled to mourn a friend who committed suicide, but instead of listening to moldy 1960s pop, they pass the time telling macabre stories. Actually, it is nothing like a British Big Chill, because it is really quite clever. Abigail Blackmore and her collaborating cast-members give the horror anthology a fresh spin in Tales from the Lodge, which premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

Jonesy offed himself by drowning, which was dashed awkward of him. Martha is also rather put out that Paul has brought his latest girlfriend to the ash-scattering weekend. Her name is Miki, but everyone keeps calling her Nikki, annoying her no end. Frankly, Emma and Russell are happy to have any excuse to be away from their kids, while Martha’s sickly husband Joe would be miserable wherever he was.

As the resentments start to build, the university friends distract themselves with stories that mix humor with horror. However, the format eventually starts to breakdown. Poor Joe doesn’t get to properly finish his tale, whereas Emma has more of a performance piece (as you might call it). Paul’s story of a sinister auto misadventure is probably the most akin to the sort of British tales of terror you used to see in Amicus anthology films or the Hammer House of Horror TV show, making it a fitting opener. Perhaps the best tale is Martha’s deliciously ironic spirit possession yarn, while Russell’s zombie fantasy is probably the most cinematic, starting out as a jokey lark, but taking a dark turn.

Yet, Lodge is that rare animal among horror anthologies, in that its connecting material is better (and ultimately creepier) than the constituent tales. These sequences are also considerably longer than typical anthology framing devices. In fact, the ill-fated reunion is clearly the whole point of the film instead of a mere afterthought.

The six principals are all cuttingly funny and they play of each other quite adroitly. Laura Fraser is probably the stand-out as the abrasively passive-aggressive Martha. Kelly Wenham also clearly enjoys getting to chew some serious scenery as Miki, but Mackenzie Crook, Dustin Demri-Burns, Sophie Thompson, and Johnny Vegas all take full advantage of their spots, as Joe, Paul, Emma, and Russell, respectively.

Fans of the British horror tradition will get a big kick out of Lodge. Blackmore’s screenplay is incisively droll, but also nostalgic in the right way. Apparently, it was an unusually successful group effort, with the six main thesps getting directing credits for their characters’ stories in the closing titles. Highly recommended for old school genre anthology movie fans, Tales from the Lodge screens again Monday (3/11) and Wednesday (3/13), as part of this year’s SXSW.