It happens almost every year. A horror film by a little-known filmmaker comes charging out of the gate, capturing the hearts and minds of festival goers at Sundance or SXSW. And the buzz only grows as the film builds a head of steam on the festival circuit.

In 2018, it was Ari Aster’s debut film, Hereditary. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, was the runaway hype train of 2017. Robert Egger’s The Witch dominated the early months of 2015.

Last year, that mantle was laid upon the shoulders of The Lodge, the new release from director Severin Fiala and writer Sergio Casci.  The Lodge was 2019’s version of the Little Horror Engine That Could, but something happened to the film after the train left the station. 

It played summer festivals to great acclaim.  Everyone anticipated a nationwide release in October.  Nothing rakes in the money like a horror film near Halloween.  But, for some reason known only to film distributors and Hollywood executives, it never happened. 

Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic, and The Lodge didn’t even receive a wide release in early 2020 during the pre-blockbuster time of the year.  The Little Engine That Could derailed before it ever pulled into multiplexes across the country.

As the film opens, Richard (Richard Armitage) wants his children to accompany him on a trip to their annual winter retreat.

However, this year the agenda is a bit different than in years past. Richard and his wife, Laura (Alicia Silverstone) are close to finalizing their divorce, and Richard wants his two children to meet Grace (Riley Keough), the woman he is dating who seems to be the front runner to become his kids’ stepmother once the ink is dry on the divorce papers.

Richard plans on leaving his kids at the lodge with Grace while he finishes up some work in the city, and he’ll join the trio in time for Christmas. He envisions days of bonding experiences as they decorate the house and get to know each other better.

What could possibly go wrong with three people stuck in a confined space who may have a bit of animosity toward one another? Plenty (if you know your horror history).

The Lodge has fun tipping a sly wink to the winter isolation films that have come before it. The children kill time watching John Carpenter’s The Thing until Grace suggests that less disturbing entertainment might be more appropriate.

It’s no coincidence that Grace’s dog, Grady, shares the name of the bartender in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. He’s a four-legged nod to Danny Torrance’s little undead playmates, the Grady twins.

During the first act of the film, you may wonder if Severin Fiala and Sergio Casci have leaned too much on Hereditary as an influence. There’s a dollhouse with family members depicted in miniature. The lead female has a history of sleepwalking and mental instability. The score relies on familiar plucked strings and dissonant chords.

But have no fear (pun intended), as the film moves beyond its first act premise, it takes some clever twists and turns and enters its own unique territory. The entire third act is one stellar payoff after another. All the little character details that accumulate along the way become instrumental in the outcome of the narrative. You could accuse the filmmakers of simply showing off if it all didn’t work so well.

As with most satisfying horror films, the story is grounded by a trio of compelling performances. Riley Keough gives a haunting and heartbreaking performance as Grace, a young woman with significant trauma in her past who wants nothing more than to ingratiate herself to her fiancé’s kids. Keough is fast becoming the female Robert Pattinson, choosing one interesting role after another and refusing to simply rely on her good looks to dominate the screen.

While Keough may be the single best thing The Lodge has going for it, the performances of the two child actors aren’t far behind. Jaeden Martell as Aiden and Lia McHugh as Mia give stunning, nuanced performances.

The audience never doubts that they are devoted siblings whose loyalty to one another cannot be broken by Grace nor by their own father. Every glance and every gesture they make expose their collective past and build the “us versus her” tension coursing through the film.

I could give countless examples of how The Lodge builds its growing sense of dread. I could also point out the many ways that the production design and cinematography create an atmosphere dripping with tension. There’s just one problem: getting into specifics is going to put us in Spoiler Territory, and I don’t want to risk giving away the powerful plot beats of the film.

Suffice it to say that The Lodge was one of the best horror films of 2019.  It deserves to find a wider audience on home video.  It hits Blu-ray and DVD on May 5th.