A cabin in the woods is once again the last place you’d want to spend a weekend in Nini Bull Robsahm’s competently made but slow & derivative horror movie.
You’d think by now that horror movie writers would come up with a different setting than the woods. Why not the DMV, or, to keep things topical, a family reunion where no one but you is wearing masks? Everything that could possibly happen in the woods has already happened: masked killers, alien spores, demonic forces, a flesh-eating virus, hillbilly rapists, witches, giant ticks, mutant bears, regular bears, a cabin that’s actually a sort of sociological experiment. That’s only a small sampling – Wikipedia lists 47 different films under the category “Backwoods Slasher Movie.” It’s done, it was done a long time ago. Nevertheless, Nini Bull Robsahm’s Lake of Death gives it another go, with mixed results.
Loosely based on a Norwegian novel from the 1940s, Lake of Death boasts talent both in front of and behind the camera, including editor Bob Murawski (Army of Darkness, Drag Me to Hell). Unfortunately, that talent, along with a dreamy, eerie score by John Debney, is expended on a frustratingly derivative script that takes too long to get going, and relies far too much on jump scares and obvious red herrings.
Lillian (Iben Akerlie), still struggling with the loss of her creepy brother, Bjorn (Patrick Walshe McBride), a year earlier, returns to the scene of his death, a family-owned cabin in the woods, situated near a lake rumored to be the site of many a mysterious demise over the years. Why would Lillian’s family own a house near such a terrible place? Why does anyone do anything in these kinds of movies? It’s never explained. Anyway, she arrives with a group of friends, including her current partner, Kai (Ulric von der Esch), and an old flame, Gabriel (Jonathan Harboe). Gabriel may or may not still love Lillian, it’s never entirely clear, and so little time is spent developing him as a character that a third act suggestion that maybe he’s the bad guy feels hollow and pointless.
Bjorn’s ghost seems to linger in the house, the trees, and in the lake where he died, and it becomes quickly apparent that Lillian is nowhere near recovered from his passing. That’s the least of the group’s problems, however, as indicated when Lillian’s dog won’t enter the house, and runs off in fear. There’s also signs that someone else is in the house with them, stealing their phones and thoughtfully setting the table for breakfast. Meanwhile, Lillian has troubling visions of Bjorn, and hallucinates black goop running down the ceilings and out the faucets. Is there a ghost? Is it Lillian, who sleepwalks at night? Is it the malevolent forces in the lake?
Why would Lillian’s family own a house near such a terrible place? Why does anyone do anything in these kinds of movies? It’s never explained.
If this all sounds like the plot of several other movies you’ve seen before, you’re not imagining it. Lake of Death is a hodge-podge of well-worn horror tropes, so much so that it seems almost intentional. The characters certainly recognize what kind of situation they’re in, referencing A Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead in their conversations with each other. It’s clever, in a Scream sort of way, but on the other hand, it doesn’t make much sense that the characters, despite knowing that they might be in danger, elect to not really do anything about it (though that, too, is a well-worn horror trope, and if you think about it too long, you’ll develop a headache behind your left eye).
It takes over an hour before things really start moving in Lake of Death, and even then it’s muted and anticlimactic. Given the tragic folklore surrounding the lake, which is barely touched upon and ultimately has little to do with what ends up happening, it feels like it started out as one kind of movie, before gradually getting tied up in one cliche after another. Given the gorgeous cinematography by Axel Mustad, who makes underwater scenes look like ballet, and a strong performance by Akerlie, who could have just played Lillian as another tragic sad girl, the seeds of a genuinely good movie are present here. Unfortunately, they’re not given a chance to blossom.
Given that the book was written 1942, and the first film adaptation made in 1958, this version so boldly lifting from other movies in the same genre was a conscious choice on Robsahm’s part. It’s almost good, and somehow that’s worse than if it was absolutely terrible. A lot of effort clearly went into its arresting visuals, but to what end? Lake of Death is like a beautifully wrapped empty box.
Lake of Death is now available on Shudder.