SXSW 2019: TALES FROM THE LODGE (2019)

Tales from the Lodge.jpg

Studio:      XYZ Films
Director:    Abigail Blackmore
Writer:      Abigail Blackmore
Producer:  Richard Wylie, Ed Barratt
Stars:     Mackenzie Crook, Dustin Demri-Burns, Laura Fraser, Sophie Thompson, Johnny Vegas, Kelly Wenham

Review Score:

70.jpg

Summary:

Six friends share strange stories while gathered to mourn a dead loved one and end up living out a true terror tale themselves.


Synopsis:     

SXSW Film Festival Review:

Jonesy drowned himself in a lake three years ago. Caught up in their own personal problems related to marriage, children, and terminal illnesses, his longtime university chums Paul, Martha, Joe, Russell, and Emma weren’t there with Jonesy at the time. They’re present now though. All five friends have gathered at the remote cabin where Jonesy died to memorialize the man by ceremoniously scattering his ashes.

Also in attendance is Paul’s latest fling Miki. Martha isn’t sure if she should be mad at Paul for bringing her or at Miki for crashing what was meant to be an intimate gathering of Jonesy’s closest mates. Martha settles on making sure Miki feels her contempt at every available opportunity anyway.

Everyone else decides to make the most of a glum situation by honoring Jonesy the best way they know how: swapping silly, scary stories that would have earned a snicker from their dearly departed pal. Paul quips a quick ditty about a masked slasher. Martha spins a yarn where a paranormal ghost hunt has unexpected consequences for a troubled husband and wife. Russell sets his story in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

As the evening rolls forward, the sextet becomes stuck in a true terror tale when a man appears in the woods outside. The power is cut. The phone goes dead. All of the cars inexplicably go missing. The stories don’t stop, but fiction turns into reality as the situation exposes secrets no one could have foreseen.

Because of its portmanteau format, “Tales from the Lodge” broadly qualifies as an anthology. Really though, the throughline of Miki and the five friends isn’t a typical wraparound so much as a main course. The handful of short vignettes accents the core story with various asides, although you could have an independently functional character study for 45 minutes if the ‘campfire tales’ disappeared completely.

Its darkly humorous streak also earns “Tales from the Lodge” general classification as ‘comedy-horror,’ which isn’t entirely accurate either. “Tales from the Lodge” stirs approximately three parts drama, two parts horror, and one part humor to blend a quirky cocktail that tastes differently depending on how a personal palate is prepared.

Basically, with multiple genres in play on one side and a small slew of separate stories on the other, “Tales from the Lodge” features two different handfuls of mixed nuts. Viewers can choke on any one of those components if they’re not careful. Yet if pumps are primed accordingly, “Tales from the Lodge” can hit sweet spots of unique entertainment that can’t quite be contained within overly reductive descriptions. Individual enjoyment truly comes down to correctly calibrated expectations.

Like any collection of disparate pieces, the six or so segments land with disparate degrees of success. Frankly, if you’re looking to fill out short lists of outstanding horror anthology chapters, “Tales from the Lodge’s” aren’t going to rank alongside anything from Amicus or “Creepshow.”

Having minor impact has little to do with execution. “Tales from the Lodge” squeezes the max out of a minimum budget. Front to back, left to right, from lighting and camerawork to makeup and editing, every discipline turns in A+ effort. “Tales from the Lodge” certainly looks like an enviable indie movie whose passion on both sides of the lens contributes greatly to a carefully crafted production.

Conception causes more trouble, as the horror doesn’t come with a whole lot of heaviness. The first two segments specifically, Joe’s bit about a machete-wielding maniac and Martha’s story of spicing up marital sex through demonic possession, conspicuously do not include endings. Emma’s spin comes and goes so quickly, she just delivers it in a monologue without any visual aids. Russell’s brief zombie romp remains light on substance too, although Johnny Vegas’ charm as a mulleted Kiefer Sutherland wannabe playing a schlubby Mad Max hero makes up for it.

Takes on horror tropes have more zip on the lip. Don’t think “Shaun of the Dead” or any outright comedy along those lines. “Tales from the Lodge” simmers satire more subtly. As someone who has suffered through more haunted building “found footage” films than a Cray supercomputer could count, I particularly appreciate the nod to an abandoned asylum where monks were murdered. Also high up on the laugh list is a callout to classic zombies not just shambling slowly, but casting crap creatures in the background while quality makeup features up front. Creator Abigail Blackmore knows classic genre clichés, but doesn’t style her script to repeatedly elbow you in the ribs about it.

As one would expect given the project’s divergent DNA, comedy hits hills and valleys too. A recurring gag about quiche isn’t funny the first time, and yet the film keeps boomeranging back to it hoping desperate persistence will pay off with a chuckle. It doesn’t. On the other hand, an ingenious use of Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” to accompany a certain montage provides one of the brighter flashes of inspired hilarity.

“Tales from the Lodge” finds greater strengths in unexpected places. Chiefly, in its interpersonal relationship building. Being of a similar age, it personally resonated with me that the friends featured are facing perils particular to being fortysomething, which isn’t a demographic seen often in this context. The group’s struggles to reconcile where they once foresaw themselves versus current stations involving loveless relationships, annoying offspring, and untimely medical diagnoses add deeper meaning to “Tales from the Lodge” as a surprisingly bittersweet drama.

Abigail Blackmore may be a first time feature writer/director, but she has credits as an actress dating as far back as 1989. Accordingly, Blackmore puts performances first, making “Tales from the Lodge” a character-driven showcase for six terrific talents who tune themselves to fluctuating frequencies of sober emotion, lighthearted frivolity, and full-on fear.

Blackmore goes another six miles for invested authenticity by having each actor direct his/her individual segment. Their collective work comes off as a truly collaborative endeavor prioritizing insightful exploration of peculiar personalities under a cracked lens of weird spooks and mild absurdity. Blackmore’s creative call to let her charismatic cast commandeer the wheel proves to be the right tactic for sailing against winds of flighty side stories and hit-or-miss humor.

Call it a horror-comedy anthology for lack of a simpler term. But understand that “Tales from the Lodge” goes down smoother when taken as a sometimes warped, often heartfelt drama its curb appeal doesn’t initially imply. It’s a hard movie to pin down with succinct words, which is bad for anyone misled to anticipate something “Tales from the Lodge” is not, but good for anyone up for something slightly outside the box.

Review Score: 70