Over recent years, the trusty horror anthology format has seen its fair share of reinvention along with most subgenres of genre film. A collection of short films, or segments, all tied together by an interlocking wraparound story or theme, the anthology always brings a fun level of unpredictability thanks to its format. Some modern horror anthology films, like Trick ‘r Treat or Southbound, have dropped the familiarity of the wraparound and link the segments through recurring theme or specific motif. Hulu’s Into the Dark has super-sized its segments, giving each film a larger runtime and spread over the course of a year. In Abigail Blackmore’s Tales from the Lodge, the anthology format has its defining traits tested further, as the writer/director places full narrative focus on the wraparound with the short segments existing only as a tool for buoying the wraparound’s development.
Set in an isolated lakeside cabin in the woods, Tales from the Lodge tells of a group of former university pals, all pushing 40, gathering for the weekend to scatter the ashes of their friend Jonesy who’d drowned himself in that lake 3 years prior. As much as the weekend is about remembering their lost friend, it’s also about reconnecting with old friends and ignoring the tribulations of life for a weekend, if they can. So, between games, food, and wine, they also attempt to scare one another with tales of ghosts, zombies, and possession. But as night closes in, true horror is closing in around them, and their very lives are at stake.
The core group of friends are Joe (The Office’s Mackenzie Cook), Martha (Laura Fraser, A Knight’s Tale), Emma (Sophie Thompson), Russell (Johnny Vegas), and Paul (Dustin Demri-Burns), who’s brought along his latest fling Miki (Kelly Wenham) – a move that seriously ruffles the feathers of Martha. The cast alone should be a tip-off that Blackmore is placing hard emphasis on the comedy in this comedy-horror. Blackmore, who also wrote the feature, spends a lot of time setting up the group dynamics with humorous effect; Martha’s abrasiveness toward group outsider Miki, Russsell and Emma’s old married couple bickering, and Paul’s unenviable task of supporting his on-edge girlfriend while also keeping the peace among friends with their uninvited guest. The heart of the film, no pun intended, is Joe’s recent news of a failing heart and his worry over how that affects his marriage with Martha.
The more that the history between friends unravels, the friends take turns interjecting their tale of terror at random. To match the personality of the storyteller, Blackmore imbues each short segment with a different style and tone. Each come with their own humorous twist and more often than not really land their jokes. They progressively get wackier. They may be centered around ghosts, zombies, and demonic possession, but this is much more in the vein of Shaun of the Dead than last year’s creepy Ghost Stories. Being that they’re not really the point or focus of this narrative, the segments come across like actual stories told among friends- brief, without much depth, and with a punchline. They exist solely to give more insight to the personalities within the group.
As tensions escalate throughout, it finally explodes into a final act so utterly bonkers that it teeters into melodramatic territory. The biggest flaw is that the very reason the friends are drawn back together in the first place is ignored for most of the runtime. Part of that is by design, as the friends are intentionally painted as self-absorbed, but never knowing a thing about who Jonesy was or why he was cherished dampens the emotional impact of the entire premise and conclusion. There’s also an attempt at a twist that feels more contrived and salacious that would’ve worked much better had it been kept simple. It undoes a lot of goodwill Blackmore had built up until then.
Tales from the Lodge is competently directed by Blackmore in her feature debut, and she absolutely nails the intended humor. Using the story segments to flesh out her characters is a refreshing take on the anthology format. The pacing, however, could use a little tightening up, as could the entire narrative. The talented and comedic actors bring these characters to life in a very human way that keeps you invested up until the third act. Then it spirals into over the top dramatic mess with a more convoluted than necessary reveal. The juggling act between interlocking character dynamics ultimately proving to be too much. It’s a mostly charming comedy-horror film that’s very light on horror, so if you’re just looking for a laugh this should offer plenty.