At times, horror movies can feel like a never-ending series of homages to predecessors. Especially within distinct subgenres, there must always be room for acknowledging those that pushed boundaries and perfected scares. Often this is achieved through re-imagining scenes, alluding to specific scares or, more directly, showing The Exorcist playing on a screen within the film itself. Much less frequently, thankfully, it might be explored through characters constantly and clunkily bringing up horror films that somewhat mirror their current unsettling experiences.
Norwegian director Nini Bull Robsahm’s Lake of Death is littered with references to immensely popular horror films. The Shudder Exclusive is actually a remake of the 1958 horror film Lake of the Dead (De dødes tjern), which itself was based on André Bjerke’s 1942 novel of the same name. Titles ranging from Misery, A Nightmare of Elm Street, Cabin Fever and The Evil Dead are referenced and directly quoted by characters, which unfortunately only serves to prompt comparisons between Lake of Death and some of the most enduringly popular horror films ever made.
The film follows Lillian (Iben Ackerlie) as she returns to the lakeside cabin where her twin brother, Bjørn (Patrick Walshe McBride), mysteriously disappeared one year earlier. Joining her are friends Sonja (Sophia Lie), Harald (Elias Munk), Gabriel (Jonathan Harboe), Bernhard (Jakob Schøyen Andersen) and Kai (Ulric von der Esch). Lillian and her now-estranged boyfriend Kai were the last people to see Bjørn before his disappearance the previous summer, and the guilt surrounding that fact has manifested for Lillian in bouts of sleepwalking. As the group stays in the cabin—and swim in the murky blue waters of the lake it sits on—an unknown force begins to terrorize them.
From the start, Lake of Death seems more concerned with making quips about horror film plots than constructing one of its own. In fact, the amount of lip service the film gives to other horror movies might momentarily cause the viewer to wonder if some Cabin in the Woods-level meta reveal is coming—but no. Instead, we start with a half-baked Blair Witch Project comment and eventually arrive at the point where a character discovers a secret basement in the cabin and says, “Wow, just like The Evil Dead!”
It’s vexing to consider that a remake of one of Norway’s most enduring films doesn’t really seem to have a good reason to exist. Robsahm attempts to inject the film with humorous moments to give an updated 21st century sensibility, such as the Bernhard character being transformed from a struggling writer to a feckless podcaster, but ultimately the film can’t escape the clutches of tired clichés. The relationships among the characters are equally uninspired, left mostly unexplored outside of flashbacks concerning Lillian and Bjørn and offering very little incentive for viewers to care about these individuals as they find themselves in perilous situations.
What ultimately bills itself as a slow-burn completely fizzles out by the end. This is particularly disappointing given that, though it lacks substance, Lake of Death never looks dull on-screen. Cinematographer Axel Mustad shot gorgeously on 35mm and Bob Murawski, a frequent collaborator of Sam Raimi’s, edited the film. The ambiance of Lake of Death is further salvaged by Murawski’s precision when it comes to editing a scene to maximize its spookiness—even if the jump scare doesn’t really pay off.
Ultimately, Lake of Death is far too indebted to all the films that influenced or inspired Robsahm, either in concept, aesthetic or creation. The original novel by Bjerke and the 1958 film that inspired the remake were more than enough to attempt to live up to. Perhaps Robsahm’s intention was to put Norwegian and American horror films in dialogue with one another. If that’s the case, in this particular discussion, Lake of Death would have been better off talking less, and scaring more.
Director: Nini Bull Robsahm
Writers: Nini Bull Robsahm
Stars: Iben Ackerlie, Patrick Walshe McBride, Ulric von der Esch, Sophia Lie, Elias Munk, Jakob Schøyen Andersen, Jonathan Harboe
Release Date: July 16, 2020 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.