When people talk about horror cliches, they’re rarely specific. There are, after all, many different subgeneres of horror, each with their own bag of tricks.
Slashers tend to be populated by moronic young adults, who don’t let obvious danger quell their passion for parties.
Psychological horror tends to feature a lead with unresolved trauma that manifests in dreamlike imagery.
Ghost stories feature inexplainable happenings that push characters toward the resolution of a mystery.
The Norwegian film Lake of Death (De dødes tjern) combines these stereotypes to create an enjoyable, if fleeting, horror sampler. Directed by Nini Bull Robsahm and inspired by the 1958 Norwegian classic Lake of the Dead (itself an adaptation of a 1942 novel), Lake of Death tells the story of troubled young Lillian (Iben Akerlie) returning to the secluded lake house from which her twin brother Bjørn (Patrick Walshe McBride) disappeared. With the urging of her former boyfriend Kai (Ulric van Der Esch), Lillian and her friends have come to prepare the house for sale and put the past behind her. But strange things happen immediately, including visions of Bjørn in the lake and a full breakfast made by no one. For most of the film, the friends explain away these oddities as pranks or the results of Lillian’s sleepwalking. And when the bodies start piling up, they start blaming one another.
If that description makes the movie sound trite, that’s because, well… it is trite. The plot to Lake of Death could have been constructed by one of those bots who have read hundreds of scripts and creates a new one via algorithm. The same is of true of its characters, who each fall into recognizable stereotypes. There’s the good looking heroine who has a dark past, the good looking guy who used to date her, the good looking guy who wants to date her, the good looking girl who is a friend, the good looking guy who is the boyfriend of the good looking girl who is a friend, and the good looking guy who no one wants to date because he’s a podcaster.
Like most flat characters in a horror movie, these people make terrible decisions to keep the plot moving forward. For example, none of them considers it strange to wake up to a lavish breakfast, at least not so strange that they won’t eat it. When one character comes to the table literally marked for death, with the word “dau” (Norwegian for “death”) written on his forehead, he shrugs, says “Creepy!’ and digs into his meal.
Now, I’m not opposed to dumb characters making bad decisions in horror movies. But Robsahm treats Lake of Death like a prestige psychological thriller. Cinematographer Alex Mustad makes even Lillian’s visions of black ooze look handsome, to say nothing of the cabin or the woods. More importantly, Robsahm, Mustad, and editor Bob Murawski make the horror scenes pop, especially the climactic face-off on the lake. The shadows on the walls and the figures in the water always feel foreboding, no matter how stupid the people they hunt may be.
Lake of Death’s strong visual style grounds the movie’s sillier elements. In any other movie, I would be annoyed that a scene built around a jump-scare fake-out would with another, dumber jump-scare fake-out, in which a character gets spooked by his own reflection in a mirror. But here, the scene feels like the natural response to a tense situation. In any other movie, I would be annoyed by the character’s constant references to Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street. But they’re shot so lovingly here, that the one-liners feel like in-jokes among friends. No matter how dumb a decision a character makes, the film feels so warm and serious that I beleive the characters are real people, not cyphers in a genre pastiche.
I realize that some people reading this review may think that Lake of Death sounds like the worst combination since toothpaste and orange juice. Why combine cheese-horror writing with prestige-horror aesthetics? But I think a better analogy would be pineapple on pizza. We all like those tastes separately, but some people will hate them put together. For me, Lake of Death offers a pleasing, if insubstantial, combination.