Tales From the Lodge is a curious little movie, a sort of stealth horror anthology by way of a Big Chill-style adult-friendship dramedy, and it even manages to work in a surprisingly amusing nod to The Lost Boys.
It’s certainly a diverting watch, snappily paced and often quite entertaining as it shifts its weight toward the “comedy” side of the comedy-horror equation. With everything that Tales has going on, though, this feature debut from British writer/director Abigail Blackmore can’t help but feel a little bit under-cooked – there are a lot of fun ideas and strong moments, here, but not always enough to connect them into a complete-feeling whole.
The film concerns a close-knit group of college friends, now all in their late 30s, who meet up at a vacation lodge on a remote forest lake to scatter the ashes of their beloved Jonesy – a mercurial mutual friend who committed suicide by drowning himself in the lake three years prior. Perpetual bachelor and successful ladies’-man Paul (Dustin Demri-Burns) has brought along his much younger new paramour Miki (Kelly Wenham) for the occasion, which immediately arouses the ire of the rather volatile Martha (Laura Fraser). Martha’s husband Joe (Mackenzie Crook) does his best to keep the peace, though his terminal heart condition keeps him on the sidelines when things start to get really heated. Meanwhile, Emma (Sophie Thompson) and Russell (Johnny Vegas), parents of twins, are just excited to get the hell out of the house for a weekend of child-free rest and relaxation.
“This particular circle of friends’ regular pastime is to regale one another with stories of zombies and supernatural possession…”
This particular circle of friends’ regular pastime (the origins and significance of which the film doesn’t establish terribly clearly) is to regale one another with stories featuring subjects such as zombies and supernatural possession, something like a grown-up version of the preteen tale-spinners from Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? These titular tales are presented as a series of short movies-within-the-movie, and each cleverly reflects the personality and sensibilities of its storyteller (according to the film’s credits, the actors even directed their own characters’ stories). A lot of the film’s most memorable imagery, both comedic and macabre, can be found in these sequences – from a hospital bed built like a medieval torture device to an undead-battling hero with an iconic blonde mullet.
The anthology-style segments don’t make up all that much of Tales From the Lodge‘s running time, but they’re a refreshing way of periodically breaking up all the bickering, reminiscing, and score-settling that’s common to these types of “old friends reunited” movies. Unfortunately, though, the stories have a tendency to peter out ineffectually rather than end with an unpredictable Rod Serling flourish – and, ultimately, only one of them has any real bearing on the film’s overall narrative.
That feeling that something is sort of missing, that things could occasionally be more fully realized, unfortunately, extends to the rest of the movie, as well. Blackmore’s dialogue is droll and incisive without sounding stagy, and the story’s third-act revelations are well-handled, but there’s a sense throughout that there are more interesting aspects of these characters and their friendship that, for some reason, we’re not seeing. That takes away some of the impact when,as Tales progresses, the elements of fear and dread from the stories being told begin to manifest themselves in the real world. Obviously, all of these characters are more fully fleshed-out than the brain-dead slasher fodder served up by conventional genre efforts, but because this film aspires to be something a bit more substantial than just a frivolous horror-comedy affair, it would be nice to see them developed further before the situation turns truly sinister.
“…does get a lot of mileage out of its witty, sometimes very British humor…”
Still, despite those relative shortcomings, Tales From the Lodge does get a lot of mileage out of its witty, sometimes very British humor, and although it doesn’t go for a lot of big scares, there are a number of unsettling moments that also help keep things lively. The cast, made up mostly of seasoned players from U.K. television series, is certainly game, and every member of the ensemble gets a nice moment or two to showcase their comedic chops. Fraser is a particular standout in her memorably manic turn as Martha, whose barely contained loathing for Miki is played to often hilarious perfection; the actress will be familiar to American viewers from a very different role as a late-season villain on Breaking Bad.
That casting is one of several elements of Tales From the Lodge that works quite well, and, overall, the film is enjoyable, original, and well-made enough to overcome the less effectively defined aspects of its story. Blackmore has managed to generate something fresh out of a handful of familiar elements with her first feature, and it bodes well for future efforts, whether they be scary or funny or something else entirely.
Tales From the Lodge (2019) Written and directed by Abigail Blackmore. Starring Mackenzie Crook, Dustin Demri-Burns, Laura Fraser, Sophie Thompson, Johnny Vegas, Kelly Wenham, Amad Straughan, Robert Portal, Nicola Stephenson, Cavan Clerkin. Tales From The Lodge screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
6.5 out of 10