[Cannes Review] ‘Lake of Death’ Infuses Retro Cabin in the Woods Horror with Norwegian Folklore

One of the most notorious locales in horror is the cabin in the woods. The remote location makes for fertile ground to all sorts of evil while effectively isolating unwitting victims from safety. It’s so synonymous that the second you see a cabin attached to a genre film, the horror mind can’t help but speculate what type of evil will ensue, be it demons, masked maniacs, witches, and far beyond. The answer in Lake of Death is more complicated than it initially appears, presenting a retro horror film crafted by a definite horror fan but infused with uniquely specific folklore from a beloved Norwegian classic.
Inspired by André Bjerke’s 1942 novel Lake of the Damned, which was adapted to screen in 1958 and became one of Norway’s most regarded horror films, Lake of Death reinvents the story with the horror fan in mind. Written and directed by Nini Bull Robsahm (Amnesia), the plot follows Lillian, a guilt and grief-stricken woman that returns to her family’s cabin with her friends one year after her twin brother Bjørn disappeared into the lake. Lillian is meant to find closure, surrounded by friends, but the lake’s mysterious history and folklore cause the lines between reality and fantasy to blur. As strange events begin to occur, paranoia sets in as the group become unsure if Lillian’s sleepwalking is turning nightmarish or if there’s something much more sinister and supernatural to blame.
It’s evident nearly straightaway that Robsahm is an avid genre fan; it permeates everything. Lillian’s friends crack jokes about Misery and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The production design, right down to the radio that’s later hacked to bits with an ax, is informed by genre classics. Lake of Death feels like a patchwork of horror, aesthetically. Narratively, that works to subvert viewer expectations. Robsahm often attempts to use familiar tropes as a weapon to keep you guessing, and while it doesn’t always work, it does keep things exciting and engaging.

Lake of Death takes a while to build and reveal its brand of horror. It establishes Lillian’s history with the place and the grief that makes her an unreliable narrator, therefore making it not immediately clear if her hallucinations are that of a broken mind or the power of the eerie lake behind the cabin. Once the film shows its hand, though, it fills a satisfying retro void in horror that you didn’t know you’d missed so much – even if some of the beats along the way offer no surprises.
In terms of horror and atmosphere, Lake of Death delivers. In terms of polished story and characters, well, not so much. The actors, led by Lillian’s Iben Akerlie, give everything that’s asked of them and make this group of friends genuinely likable- for the most part- but the script often forces them to make implausible decisions to propel the plot forward. There’s a surprising lack of urgency for this group when danger truly sets in; they should be fleeing into the night or fighting for survival instead of shrugging their shoulders and cozying up by the record player. For all their knowledge of horror movies, none of them bother to notice the red flags. Sure, that’s the genre norm, but it’s at odds with the atmospheric mystery Robsahm spent time crafting.
Visually, it’s gorgeous. The natural landscape enriches the dreamlike quality of the film. It’s well-executed too, which means that Robsahm has assembled an easily digestible horror movie with an engaging retro feel that doesn’t overcomplicate itself. It’s prone to cliched genre pitfalls and silly character choices but entertains nonetheless. Robsahm takes the folkloric, haunting mystery of the source material and infuses it with ‘80s horror style, which likely will ruffle the feathers of the novel and 1958 film’s fans. More excitingly, though, Lake of Death marks a thrilling new entry in Norwegian horror that simultaneously sheds light on an underseen horror classic.
Lake of Death releases on Shudder on July 16, 2020.

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