Is it possible for something to break through so many layers of being meta, that it achieves some once thought impossible level of elevated meta? Can it literally invent a “fifth” wall and reach through the audience back into the movie? Does this sound like the existential ramblings of a thirty-something jackass who reviews horror movies? If any of this peaks your interest, then you have got to check out Lake of Death…
...Lake of Death, written and directed by Nini Bull Robsahm and following a group of kids at a lake cabin that experience supernatural events, starts off with literally no introductory credit, film companies or otherwise, with a sister and brother, in a boat, on a lake. Yes, that lake. The brother, Bjorn (Patrick Walshe McBride) is staring off into the water and then uses sign language to ask his sister, Lillian (Iben Akerlie), “do you ever think when you’re staring into a reflection, there’s another version of yourself staring back?” (FORESHADOWING?!?!?!). She ponders this point before receiving a kind gift from her brother and breaking some apparently-sad news to him; she’s leaving, somewhere, with her partner/boyfriend/fiance/fuck-buddy - they never go into details - Kai (curiously the name of the main character in the 1942 novel by Andre Bjerke), and Bjorn is a sad camper. Roll intro credits and the movie kicks in to whatever the train-version of gears are.
Lillian is on a train with a couple friends, heading to visit the lake and a property she apparently owns, on the anniversary of “an incident”. If you’re all “dude, I bet it was Bjorn and something bad happened”: you’d be right. Immediately, Lillian’s friend Bernhard (Jakob Schøyen Andersen) pulls out a strange, clearly super-European voice recorder and does an impromptu interview with the crew. Announcing himself as a para-podcaster, he has interest in the lake, as it’s rumored to have some spooooooky things going on. People are enchanted by it, there might be fairies, or it’s haunted, or it’s haunted by fairies - this is never made clear - but he’s clearly there equally in support of Lillian and the potential for a totally kick ass podcast episode. The crew gets off the train at a very very very desolate stop and meets up with Kai, who doesn’t seem to be a fan of anyone except Lillian, who gives them a ride to the lake house, which is very far away… and he’s the only one driving up there with no intent to actually stay.
This is where we learn, very quickly, that Lake of Death is not afraid to be meta as all hell. If you can think of more than one horror film scenes that are being referenced, the characters will literally name it. While it’s pretty cool to see the homage to great horror films of days past, they really lean into it. Arriving at the cabin … in the woods … on a lake of death, the crew settles in, with couple Sonja and Harald (Sophia Lie and Elias Munk) going for a swim, with hopefully not a disfigured child lurking in the bottom to pull them under. Lillian, Bernhard, and Gabriel (Jonathan Harboe) - who’s relationship, hobby, or “deal” is never really explained - settle in, with Lillian giving some backstory on her brother, Bjorn. Bad things happened. He disappeared. And this dude Gruvik killed some people a while back in the area.
Transitioning into late night like a moose with a Harvard degree half-drunk on cotton candy vodka, Bernhard has a tense experience involving doors who’s hinges clearly got too much WD-40. The camera work and style shows itself to be effective, if extremely conventional. There’s “trick” shots of someone looking in a mirror and seeing a shadow. Aforementioned doors creak open, slowly. Lillian appears, facing a corner and not hearing Bernhard talking to her. Also, she’s sleepwalking. Also, Nightmare on Elm Street reference by Sonja. The whole affair looks very good, with high film mastering quality, convincing sound effects, and some decent makeup, involving some black tar stuff. Acting is also convincing albeit with nothing standout or otherwise. One plus happened at about the half-way mark, and that was how the characters handled “suspicious” occurrences: they stuck together. With all the tropes this film smears its face in, this was a refreshing change.
The big kicker here are the endless tropes that the movie is all-too-comfortable being super-meta with, referencing scenes they’re experiencing, straight out of other horror movies. While the occasional meta-reference can be enjoyable and respectful to the original content, Lake of Death gets so wrapped up in it. There’s the cabin on a lake, sleepwalking, a - wouldn’t you have guessed it - door, hidden in the floor of the cabin, characters betray one another, the main character’s boyfriend is a giant ass; the list goes on.
One thing to consider, however, is the source material. De dødes tjern the 1942 novel by Andres Bjerke was exactly that: written in 1942. That’s a pretty significant jump on nearly all of the movies Lake of Death gives a nod to. I’m not sure how much of the original novel (or 1958 film translation) is actually held up in this, but I’m very curious and genuinely wish I would’ve had time to read the novel, at the very least for a good comparative reference. I more than likely will.
Lake of Death does some things decent, but it never goes far above average and never reaches out of its comfort zone. It’s rather fast-paced and pretty easy to watch, if you can get used to subtitles (which isn’t a big ask). But it gets so wrapped up in being meta, it fails to have the one or two qualities that make it somewhat unique and ends up fading into mediocrity.
Dive into Lake of Death when it arrives on Shudder July 16th.
By Zach Gorecki