Cursed families are long-serving denizens of Gothic horror storytelling, dating all the way back to Horace Walpole’s trendsetting 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. Whether that’s a legacy of evil passed between generations, or a heritage of haunting that seeks to doom every member belonging to a particular bloodline, the genre has a storied history of strange families forced to pay for the transgressions of their ancestors. Furthermore, these stories often take place in old manors or estates whose long corridors and secret passages serve as a fitting setting for things to go bump in the night. Director Brian O’Malley follows his impressive 2014 debut, Let Us Prey, with such a tale of terror, and it’s a good one at that.

Written (and scored) by Irish academic and musician David Turpin, The Lodgers is a haunted house story that will resonate with fans of movies like The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963) and The Orphanage (2007), as well Gothic-tinged dramas such as The Duke of Burgundy (2014). There are also literary traces reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, Shirley Jackson, Jean Cocteau and a host of other complementary visionaries. Imagine The Haunting of Hill House (1959 ) meets Les Enfants Terribles (1929) and you get a brief idea of the myriad of influences The Lodgers encompasses, albeit implemented in such a way that the film carves its own identity in the grand pantheon of Gothic horror pictures.

Set in 1920, the story follows the orphaned twins, Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner), who live in an old family estate in rural Ireland, bound by an ancestral supernatural curse which forbids them to ever leave. They also must abide by three rules or else incur the wrath of the titular Lodgers: bed before midnight; no outsiders on the premises; never leave. Rachel, however, wants to break free, but she can’t convince her brother to make the daring escape. But when war hero Sean (Eugene Simon) arrives in the nearby village and steals her heart, she starts breaking the rules and that doesn’t go down well with the resident ghostly tyrants or her brother.

The Lodgers is a film that oozes with eerie atmosphere, gloomy visuals and a forbidden sexual undercurrent. The film’s spooky mythology is fascinating, though this isn’t a conventional haunted house yarn. Instead, O’Malley and Turpin use the supernatural components as a backdrop while examining repressed desire and how to cope with it. The heart of the story is Rachel’s coming-of-age transcendence; she’s on the brink of adulthood, on the cusp of her sexual awakening, and keen to explore the wider world. Yet still feels shackled by a duty to her brother who relies on her, which means she’s forced to negotiate with her own inner desires. Of course, with this being a story of siblings trapped in a house together, alone, for the entirety of their lives, there are moments of uncomfortable tension with incestuous connotations, which provides as many chills as the oft-surreal supernatural sequences. If there’s one thing that’s more disturbing than oppressive ghosts, it’s incest.

The house in which the film takes place is Ireland’s Loftus Hall, a manor said to be haunted by the devil and the ghost of a 17th Century woman. Nowadays it’s tourist attraction for those who are interested in supernatural hot spots, but it’s been maintained to look and feel like a relic from another time. Therefore, the property provides a natural setting for an old-fashioned period ghost story. The Lodgers does a good job of recreating the era in which it’s set — from the setting, costumes and dialect, to the country’s attitudes towards troubled Anglo-Saxon relations at the time.  

That said, those looking for a traditional horror narrative might be disappointed. The Lodgers blurs the line between the supernatural and the psychological without ever fully revealing the true extent of the characters’ dilemma — whether it’s really a powerful curse or delusional brought on by the trauma of losing their parents at a young age and no adult guardian to look after them afterwards. For some, this is what will make The Lodgers fascinating, but it might be frustrating for others. Either way, it’s bound to inspire some good debates and conversations within the community.

While I very much enjoyed The Lodgers, it is a film that demands more than one sitting to fully appreciate in order to make sense of what’s happening, as there is more going on than initially meets the eye. Those who appreciate Gothic-laden scare fare will find it alluring, while those seeking something challenging will find a movie that provides some food for thought and plenty of material to dissect. It’s the right amount of accessible and unconventional, and a worthy addition to genre cinema’s rich history of haunted hallways and estranged families.

The Lodgers will be released on Feb. 23 courtesy of Dread Central Presents and Epic Pictures.