A dilapidated estate in the Irish countryside is the setting for Brian O’Malley’s The Lodgers, a Gothic haunted house story set in the days following World War I. Any Gothic film set in a grand country estate immediately calls to mind Rebecca’s Manderley, and The Lodgers certainly has shared DNA with the Gothic films that have come before, including The Innocents and a little bit Picnic at Hanging Rock. It also calls to mind Guillermo Del Toro’s recent Gothic horror-romance, Crimson Peak, though where that film reaches for spectacle (and kind of face-plants in the garden of its own grandeur), The Lodgers is a quieter tale, atmospheric and creepy and full of decay.
Rot plagues young Rachel (Charlotte Vega, American Assassin) and Edward (Bill Milner, Dunkirk), twins and scions of the Irish gentry. Their parents are gone, their house is haunted, and Edward seems to be slipping into some kind of psychosis, either of the demonic variety or just the “dramatic youth” type. Edward is the delicate one, lazing amongst the moth-eaten drapes of their regal beds and not so much walking around their ancestral as oozing around corners like a mollusk. Rachel, meanwhile, is trying to keep their home running even though their funds are depleted and their solicitor is encouraging them to sell.
The twins live by one rule: Be in bed by midnight or else “the Lodgers” will come out. There’s even a whole creepy song about it. Rachel, however, falls asleep next to the estate’s lake and almost misses curfew, and each near miss seems to bring the Lodgers closer to the living within the house. Soon naked, water-logged people materialize in the shadows and every night water swells from a trap door before the stairs. The house is built on marshy land, and the image of water seeping up the stairs calls to mind one of the greatest haunted house stories of all time, Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
This damp pursuit seems aimed specifically at Rachel. Edward is tortured, apparently giving into the “family curse”—implied to be incest—but Rachel is the one attempting to find a way out of her bleak prospects and the world literally rotting around her. At one point, the family solicitor (Walder Frey, so you know nothing good is going on there) suggests marriage as a way out of her financial troubles, but Rachel has eyes for Sean (Eugene Simon, aka Lancel Lannister), a local man returned from the war. But Rachel is pursued at every step. If not by her creepy old lawyer then by her own brother, who wants to fulfill his family’s fate—their parents were also siblings—or by men from the village who try to assault every woman who comes into range.
There is no ground safe for Rachel. Outside her estate gates, she is beset by the limited options of women, with no real way to save herself except marry or sell her home, and under the constant sexual threat of men. Inside her estate, though, is the rising water, her brother’s increasing madness, and the specter of her drowned parents. Her preferred places of respite are the lake where her parents died or a bathtub—even in perceived safety she finds herself immersed. The creeping horror of The Lodgers is not just the specter of the dead coming ever closer but also the inevitable squelching of a young woman’s spirit as the lack of options and agency slowly drowns her in the agony of confinement.
The Lodgers is a low-key offering in the Gothic genre, less invested in jump scares than in its own moodiness. It’s pretty, if decayed, with the squalor of Rachel and Edward’s home representing not just their lost fortune, but also the death throes of the aristocracy, as the film is set in the period when many great estates were abandoned as life moved into cities and toward automation. It’s also the period of women’s suffrage, and here is Rachel, surrounded by men who want her—to have her, to consume her, or to save her. In the end, Rachel’s world is defined by two forces: The devouring need of men and the fathomless water slowly consuming her life.
The Lodgers is in select theaters and available on demand.