By Alex Brannan.
“Be in bed by midnight’s bell. Never let a stranger through your door. Never leave each other all alone.” These are the rules that define the lives of twin siblings Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) in Brian O’Malley’s period horror The Lodgers. Orphaned after the tragic deaths of their parents, they live dormant in the ramshackle hermitage that is their Irish mansion estate. When we first meet the siblings, Rachel has awoken in a start at her favorite spot on the grounds: the shore of a small pond. Night has already fallen, and Rachel must rush to get back to her bedroom before midnight strikes. Her near transgression causes inky water to seep from the floorboards that surround a cellar trapdoor and her brother to scold her viciously come morning.
The rules – which are recited redundantly in eerie sing-song throughout the film – bind the two teenage siblings to both their home and each other. It is never clear from where the morbid lullaby originates, but it is safe to assume that it is a lesson passed on through the family’s lineage. This familial history proves to be insidious and cyclical, and it motivates Rachel to try and leave. Compared to the frantically neurotic Edward, Rachel is a free spirit. Like the birds that Edward captures and cages until they are nothing but bones, she is a prisoner within the culture into which she was born. She finds kinship in a boy who works at the local store, Sean (Eugene Simon), who is similarly alienated by his history of serving with the English military during World War I.
Screenwriter David Turpin uses this historical backdrop as a means of allegory, extending the supernatural ghost story at the root of the narrative to include an assessment of the effects of political isolationism. Turpin does not burden the A-plot with this allegory. In fact, the siblings’ estate exists somewhat out of time. The historical relevancy of the period setting is instead hinted at in subplots and minor pieces of set dressing. Early on, we see a headstone that bears the year 1916 – it is a grave marker we come to learn signifies the resting place of Rachel’s deceased parents. These deaths prove to be an important moment in Rachel’s maturation, just as the Easter Rebellion of 1916 was an important marker in Irish history. The film takes place in 1920 during the middle of the Irish War of Independence, and the presence of an English veteran does not sit well with the locals. During the 1916 rebellion, Sean was likely fighting for his country. Ostracized by the Irish community for this nationalism, Sean becomes an unwilling participant in a country’s battle for sovereignty. Similarly, Rachel is oppressed by her family heritage, which ostracizes her from the community as well. Both characters seek freedom from their forced isolationism, even if interventionism poses a more direct threat to their safety. The result is a melancholic, uncertain emancipation.
It is this push and pull between isolation and intervention that drives the conflict. The specter of an oppressive history haunts the characters, both in the real world and in the sporadic images of supernaturalism. Rachel is terrorized by images of conjured eels and levitating corpses. Edward is threatened by the overseer of the estate (David Bradley), who warns that their outstanding debts may force them out of the house and out of Ireland. The supernatural quality of the house may ultimately be too abstract and undefined to truly be terrifying, but the forces of oppression occurring from all sides keep the tension upright.
O’Malley and his crew do a good job of playing up the period setting and the Gothic elements therein. The mansion setting is sparse and open, with a dank atmosphere perpetuated by water leaking out of floorboards and flowing upwards to mold-ridden ceiling tiles. This vacant environment adds to the feeling of isolation, and the drab blue lighting that is always present inside adds to the dread of the grimy, ghostly elements. But this blue tinge is not overbearing, as it is in lesser ghost stories. When Rachel is given a glimpse at the world outside of the estate, the color temperature shifts to warmer hues. In one elegant sequence, Rachel and Sean discuss leaving the town. The sun bathes them in orange. The framing gives them limited lead space, as if they are staring out at a wide-open world that we cannot even imagine. It is a brilliant contrast to their lives trapped inside the mansion and local store, respectively.
The Lodgers does not break new ground in the realm of the ghost story. If anything, its play at the supernatural is too vague to be spine-chilling. But grounding the thriller in the historical context of its period setting is an intelligent move, giving more depth to the otherwise simplistic themes of isolation, oppression, and the sins of the father.
Alex Brannan is a freelance writer and critic. He publishes criticism at Cinefiles Reviews and can be found on Letterboxd and Twitter @TheAlexBrannan.