Irish literature professor and composer David Turpin turns to screenwriting with The Lodgers, a distinctively Gothic ghost story set in early 20th century rural Ireland. Directed by Brian O’Malley, the film has a supernatural focus that also encompasses themes of class conflict and patriotic duty in a society rapidly changing under the weakening grasp of British colonialism.
Part of the challenge of staging an original Gothic tale set in the modern era is marshaling the requisite visual elements that evoke an appropriate period setting. The filmmakers were fortunate to gain access to Loftus Hall, a nearly 700-year-old mansion in southeastern Ireland with its own supernatural history, to amplify the impact of both the narrative and style of The Lodgers. More ominously mysterious than outright terrifying, this is finely attuned, atmospheric filmmaking more likely to catch the attention of art house aficionados than dedicated horror fans.
The isolated, decrepit estate shelters only two people, orphaned fraternal twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner). The sole surviving heirs of a formerly prosperous Anglo-Irish family that arrived in Co. Wexford 200 years ago, they’re virtual prisoners in their own home, bound to the property by an ancient family curse. Every night they’re forced to shut themselves into their rooms according to requirements set by the ghostly inhabitants of the house. The Lodgers enforce three unbreakable rules: in bed, doors locked by midnight; never allow a stranger through the door; and never abandon their home. Failure to abide by these “three cautions” will unleash the menacing, unpredictable retaliations of The Lodgers.
Having grown up with these requirements like their parents and grandparents before them and with little familiarity of life beyond the estate gates, the siblings have become resigned to their fate, particularly following their parents’ suicides. As their 18th birthdays approach, Rachel begins to feel the irresistible pull of the wider world, intensified by an unannounced visit from family attorney Bermingham (David Bradley), who informs her that their inheritance is exhausted and the home will need to be sold to pay off outstanding debts.
Rachel’s inclination to test the boundaries set by The Lodgers is also resulting in some frightening incidents as she begins to experience visions of ghostly figures that clearly mean to do her harm. It’s her encounter with recently returned WW I vet Sean (Eugene Simon) however that convinces Rachel that she needs to free herself from the burden of her family’s dire history.
Loftus Hall, reputedly haunted by the ghost of a 17th Century young woman, serves as the film’s dominant character, a brooding stone edifice containing dozens of decrepit rooms with peeling plaster and a vast wooden staircase worthy of a Vincent Price horror classic. Each time the camera eerily glides through the entryway, it’s not hard to imagine that the building’s basement levels conceal some type of unspeakable evil.
Although Turpin’s script remains deliberately vague about the origins of The Lodgers and the power of their grip on Rachel and Edward, the implication is that the twins are paying for the transgressions of their parents and ancestors, potentially with their own lives. Since they’re essentially innocent victims, their lack of direct agency forces them to be primarily reactive. As she begins to assert her independence, that’s not so much of an issue for Rachel to overcome, but Edward remains too ineffectually passive, even when he becomes a direct conduit for the retribution of The Lodgers.
Vega and Milner, similar enough in age and appearance to pass as non-identical twins, are among the film’s strongest assets. Anglo-Spanish actress Vega (Another Me) takes on Rachel’s burden with implacable determination, then visibly relaxes her demeanor as her relationship with Sean blossoms. Habitual shut-in Edward gives Milner (Anthropoid) the chance to explore a largely interior role that could have been more impactful with clearer characterization.
O’Malley, whose 2014 feature Let Us Prey was a more straightforward horror exercise, here explores the psychological dimensions of the genre. Layering in typically Gothic elements from Turpin’s script, O’Malley intentionally blurs the boundaries between reality and subjective perception, creating uncertainty about the characters’ mental state and the magnitude of the threats they face.
While the Loftus Hall location provides the preponderance of the film’s creepy atmospherics, O’Malley capitalizes on the setting with moody blue-grey lighting and nimble camerawork, as well as sometimes overwhelmingly portentous sound design and an expressive score by Turpin and collaborators Stephen Shannon and Kevin Murphy.