Double, double, toil and trouble: In their supremely nasty 2014 shocker, “Goodnight Mommy,” the Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala wove an elegant nightmare about a house in the woods, a cruel battle of wits and doppelgängers both real and imagined. Think of their new, English-language thriller, “The Lodge,” as a lesser but not ineffective mirror image to that earlier picture, which it echoes not only in its remote forest setting but also in the way it uses the language of horror to pry open a window into trauma and grief.
It begins on a chilly day, with a depressive Laura (Alicia Silverstone) dropping off her teenage son, Aidan (Jaeden Martell), and prepubescent daughter, Mia (Lia McHugh), at the home of their father, Richard (Richard Armitage). Richard wants to finalize their divorce; Laura breaks down in anguish. You might initially guess, from the peculiarities of the framing and the intensity of Silverstone’s performance, that Laura is the movie’s protagonist, although that quickly, startlingly turns out not to be the case.
With near-surgical delicacy, the directors (who wrote the script with Sergio Casci) shift the story’s perspective from Laura to Richard’s new fiancée, Grace (an excellent Riley Keough). It feels like an act of transference. The scene that introduces Grace is quietly remarkable; previously glimpsed only as a blurred silhouette, she slips into the passenger seat of Richard’s car, waits a beat and then turns toward the backseat to greet Aidan and Mia — and us — for the first time. Beguilingly, the film treats her as both a protagonist and a bit of a mystery, someone capable of exuding warmth and ambiguity in the same breath.
There’s awkwardness and bad feeling all around; despite Richard’s insistence that the kids get to know their stepmom-to-be, they want nothing to do with her, partly out of loyalty to Laura and partly out of the suspicion that Grace, whose name hints at her long-ago fundamentalist upbringing, may not be entirely trustworthy. The hostility remains even after they all head into the mountains for the Christmas holidays. And that’s before Richard is suddenly called back home, leaving Grace, Aidan and Mia alone together in the enormous family lodge, a house veiled in heavy shadows and full of doors that seem to open and close at random.
Franz and Fiala — a nifty double act themselves — let tension mount slowly and deliberately, and with a merciful absence of jump scares. Their suspense-building strategies are understated and unorthodox (symmetrical frames and slow, creeping zoom shots abound), even when the plot turns are fairly conventional. There are foreshadowing images of a dollhouse whose miniature setups might remind you of the similarly chilling dioramas in “Hereditary,” a superior entry in the horror cinema of anti-therapy. The governing dynamic of both this movie and “Goodnight Mommy” — an adult female guardian looking after two children of perhaps not entirely pure motive — can’t help but echo Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and its myriad movie incarnations.
At one point the characters themselves seem to stop just short of invoking the plot of “The Others,” a horror picture they may have seen once upon a happier time. There’s nothing wink-wink postmodern about “The Lodge,” though at the same time, there isn’t much conviction or heat in the way it quietly shuffles through its various reference points, either. The haunted-house elements are offset by a dash of suicide-cult claptrap, complete with flashbacks to duct-taped bodies and other sinister imagery reminiscent of Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate. It’s a contrivance, designed to get us thinking seriously about the return of long-repressed trauma, and also about sin, guilt and remorse.
To that end, the movie’s strongest asset is Keough, an actress who can seize and hold the screen with electrifying force (check out her terrific turns in “American Honey” and the forthcoming “Zola”), but who is no less powerful in her quieter, more recessive moments. In “The Lodge” she plays a woman trying desperately to do the right thing in a bewildering situation, lost in a fog that is partly though not entirely of her own making. The key to her insidious and frightening performance is that by the end you’re not sure whether to fear her or fear for her.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Downtown Los Angeles; Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood; and AMC Century City 15