There are a few parallels with my own upbringing in The Lodgers, a spooky Irish ghost story about teenage twins living in a haunted house they can’t leave.
I grew up in a large, dilapidated, haunted house (though not as dilapidated, large or haunted as this one), a home further destroyed by we four children (I once slammed a door in a fit of pique, only to turn around and see the original Victorian coloured glass panels slowly bend towards me, the soft lead coming away from the door frame with the pretty pattern still intact within it).
The rhyme containing the rules the twins live by – be in bed by midnight, don’t let anyone in, and never leave – sounds like something devised by caring parents to keep their children safe, like my dad’s claim, as he left us in the car alone (this was the 1970s), that the white button on the car handbrake would make it explode if pressed.
My siblings and I (aged 8 to 15) were also left alone for weeks, while our mother was away recuperating from an operation and our father was on sabbatical writing a book at one of our most esteemed universities several hundred miles away.
Though I should make clear that as where the similarities end, before you watch this and find out more about the twins’ family history. And while we had a large cellar, it housed coal and a Victorian range rather than the restless dead.
This is a cold burn of a film, and I felt dispassionate about the fate of Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner). But while it doesn’t say anything new, The Lodgers unfolds with a verve and style that is stunning and atmospheric.
It’s impossible not to be unsettled when stuck with them in that mansion (filmed at Loftus Hall, the most haunted house in Ireland, though don’t they all say that?) I’m unsettled now writing about it; and reminded of Crimson Peak, though The Lodgers doesn’t have its lurid lushness.
There are some deliciously over-the-top horror staples though; particularly that house. Grey, plain-fronted, with broken windows and billowing net curtains, it’s frightening enough viewed from outside on a sunny day. Inside it is never sunny and seemingly never day, the drapes kept shut at young Edward’s forceful request. There are leaks and dust sheets everywhere, grey walls, a dark wooden staircase. It’s filmed in muted colours; grey, black, very dark blue, more grey.
And then there’s Rachel’s bath; seeing something in the mirror as she undresses, she carries on anyway. Lying back in the hot water (water is a theme), she even shuts her eyes. Growing up we had an ancient enamelled bathtub big enough to sail a ghostly pirate galleon on, and I never once shut my eyes in that bath, even though my mum was so frighteningly matter-of-fact any spirits would have left as soon as they saw her marching up the path in 1972, mortgage paperwork in her hands.
But there’s more – dead birds in cages; jewellery that transforms into bones; their lawyer Bermingham (a terrific David Bradley), straight out of a Charles Dickens adaptation as he arrives at the forbidding mansion door, to talk the teenagers into selling their home.
And Rachel herself, in her black hooded cloak, hurrying through the woods, both mistress of them and victim.
She and Edward have just turned 18. Orphaned years before, there’s a secret about their family tree going back generations. She is desperate to leave the house, escape their past and start afresh. Edward is less terrified of staying than going.
It’s the early 1920s, and the Irish War Of Independence is turning into an precarious truce. Back home in the nearby village is Sean (Eugene Simon), who’s lost his lower leg in the First World War. He’s an outsider now too, and pursues the unbiddable Rachel; a situation which makes her feel newly sexual, while also offering escape from her dreary life and possibly from the house itself. He’s a device for her and she never seems attached to him.
I don’t know if we’re meant to see the twins as the lodgers of the title but they seem to me to be part of the fabric of their home, thanks to a combination of history and psychology; the lodgers are surely the ghosts.
Edward – far more creepy than any undead soul – silently roams the decrepit mansion, as deathly as any spectre.
His skin grey, his eyes dark-rimmed and haunted, he evinces not so much sympathy as revulsion as he manipulates his sister. In many ways he’s a classic abuser – alternately threatening and wheedling, whining that he’ll die without her, holding her responsible for breaking the rules.
Rachel facilitates and enables him, through endless practice at managing his moods, fears and aggression. Spirited, haughty, snobbish and standoffish, She’s also as desperate as Edward, though in her case to escape. It’s not clear what would actually happen if she simply walked off and didn’t come back; she can wander at will to the village anyway.
Whatever these clingy ghosts are, they live in the cellar under a trapdoor; though they’re also prone to appearing in mirrors or the corner of one’s eye. Water drips upwards, or seeps across the floor; the lake holds particular significance.
Despite telling everyone I don’t believe in ghosts, I tend to avoid supernatural stories as I’m easily spooked. Though while The Lodgers is genuinely unnerving, it’s clear everything that happens can be attributed to psychological disturbances and the realities of living in a decrepit old house. Edward is hugely troubled, agoraphobic, and prone to hallucinations. He has to ensure his sister believes they’re tied to each other, once they come of age and the money runs out.
Despite his stylish direction, Brian O’Malley tells us a little too much about some parts of their story and probably not enough about other aspects for us to really care about what happens to these two rather annoying teenagers. I even got tired of the ghosts.
Having said that, Vega is very good as the complicated, self-centred heroine, haughty and desperate. Milner has been given a character less complex and more irritating; he does manage to imbue Edward with a fearsomeness and fearfulness, though with slightly too much reliance on spooky make-up and that house.
Ultimately though, while ghosts are, traditionally, repetitive – going through their supernatural motions like a spectral Groundhog Day – this movie is too repetitive, without quite enough meat on its clanking bones.
Watch The Lodgers trailer: