The thought of being isolated from the rest of civilisation as your surroundings seem to turn against you is an all too familiar feeling in 2020. It is no surprise that horror films are able to reflect that shared trauma. However, imagine that feeling of isolation, and combine it with your lockdown location being a place you associate with extreme grief, no matter how idyllic it looks from the outside. That is the basic premise of Shudder’s latest exclusive straight out of Norway: Lake of Death.
The film tells the story of Lillian (Iben Akerlie) returning to the lake and family cabin that her mute twin brother Bjorn (Patrick Walshe McBride) mysteriously disappeared from a year prior. Joined by her four friends Berhard (Jacob Schoyen Andersen), who is along for the ride as a paranormal podcaster, Harald (Elias Munk), Gabriel (Jonathan Harboe) and Sonja (Sophia Lie), this Scandinavian Scooby gang are trying to investigate the creepy folklore surrounding the lake and haunted house. They also want a bit of a party week and a swim in the lake while they are at it, because apparently none of them have ever seen Friday The 13th.
As this is a creepy cabin-in-the-woods offering, and one that actively references Evil Dead, Misery and A Nightmare on Elm Street in its opening 20 minutes, it’s no surprise that things turn sour for the group. Lillian begins hallucinating oozing walls with shades of The Amityville Horror. Pretty soon she’s sleepwalking and constantly revisiting grizzly renditions of her past. The timeless trope of not knowing what is real and what is a dream is at play constantly, but the ongoing teasing doesn’t always pay off.
Lake of Death pitches itself as an ensemble piece made up of a core cast, as well as the lake itself. Make no mistake, the lake is very much its own character, offering up constant intrigue and atmosphere. You are never really sure if the villain of the movie is the paranormally influenced body of water Bernhard is basing his Norweigan paranormal podcast on, or if it’s a more corporeal enemy. It also remains a mystery that Bernhard chose not to call his podcast “Paranorway”.
With Lake of Death’s atmospheric slow burn, this question will be at the front of your mind for the duration of the film. You may even find yourself feeling a bit silly trying to figure out the water’s motivation. Unfortunately, this anthropomorphic body of water seems to get more character development than most of the core cast.
The film may be trying to be an ensemble effort, but Lillian’s story is the only narrative you learn anything about. Every other character only seems to exist to tell her that she is crazy, act as an old flame from before the disappearance, or get picked off by the ghoulish tide. The effect is that we struggle to care when anything goes wrong for characters that are not Lillian. This is particularly obvious with the male supporting characters, who only seem to have two character archetypes between the four of them: the lover and the sceptic. Unimaginative writing unfortunately makes the film drag its feet through its second act, as it is extremely hard to get attached to characters you know nothing about.
Despite its flaws in the writing, Lake of Death is certainly not without its merits. The look of the film is expertly crafted. Any outdoor shot is simply gorgeous, helped in no small part by the very aesthetically pleasing Norwegian lakes and the filmmaker’s choice to shoot entirely in 35mm film stock. The opening title sequence immediately brings The Shining to mind, which sets the tone of the film appropriately. The atmosphere itself is equally an achievement. The tropes and the source of the horror – vengeful water and angry spirits, combined with an extremely slow build – have a very J-horror feel to them. However, the film retains its unique sense of Scandinavian humour and emptiness. Isolation horror is already creepy, but put that in Norway, a country that boasts stunning and barren landscapes, and the tension almost builds itself.
Overall, Lake of Death is worth a watch if you are in the mood to lose yourself in a film for an hour and a half but are not in the mood to be challenged. It is visually striking and masterfully shot. Unfortunately, it is let down by some lazy writing and a tediously predictable finale.
Lake of Death is streaming exclusively on Shudder now.