Grey, plain-fronted, with broken windows and billowing net curtains, the house in The Lodgers is 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.
But more unnerving is the unspoken truth about the inhabitants’ family tree, going back generations.
The rhyme containing the rules 18 year old twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) 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, though for the twins both home and family are prisons.
Their parents are long dead and they’ve lived here alone ever since. Break the rules of the rhyme and the house’s ghosts will find them.
Rachel 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.
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). 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 writing a book hundreds of miles in the opposite direction.
Though that’s where the similarities end, before you watch this and find out more about the twins’ history, a trauma they don’t think they can escape.
This is a cold burn of a film, and I felt dispassionate about the fate of Rachel and Edward. 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.
The horror tropes are deliciously presented from the spooky house to 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 now they are of age and the money is almost gone.
And water, water everywhere, dripping upwards, or seeping across the floor; the lake holds particular significance. Seeing something in the mirror as she undresses for her bath, Rachel carries on anyway. Lying back in the hot water, she even shuts her eyes.
Fear builds, a dripping crescendo, as finally beneath the floor their parents, grandparents and identical generations before them appear swimming and spinning in the basement, a suddenly endless watery space.
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.
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.
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: