Lake of Death

Lake of Death (De dødes tjern) (2019)

“Do you think there’s an alternate person in people’s reflections?”

In Lake of Death (De dødes tjern), written and directed by Nini Bull Robsahm (Amnesia, 2014), this is the opening line, delivered by Bjørn (Patrick Walshe McBride) to his twin sister Lillian (Iben Akerlie), as the camera tilts up from their inverted images reflected in a lake’s watery surface to the siblings themselves, chatting in a rowboat. Reflections can distort, and deceive. While, in the middle of their conversation, Bjørn and Lillian play a game where they sit face to face and mirror one another’s movements, the difference in their sexes makes it immediately obvious that they are dizygotic rather than identical twins – and the contrast between them is made all the clearer by the fact that Bjørn is mute, and relies on sign language to communicate, whereas Lillian speaks her lines. Bjørn gifts Lillian with a locket housing twin picture of them – a symbol of their intense bond. Lillian, however, is visiting her brother only to tell him that she is about to leave for good with her boyfriend Kai. 

Leaving is something that Lillian has done repeatedly to Bjørn since they were orphans as children – and yet her love and guilt have always brought her back. One year later, Lillian does indeed return to this remote lakeside cottage in the Norwegian hinterlands, along with her dog Totto. her now estranged boyfriend Kai (Ulric von der Esch), her friends Gabriel (Jonathan Harboe), Bernhard (Jakob Schøyen Andersen) and Sonja (Sophia Lie), and Sonja’s boyfriend Harald (Elias Munk). The name of Lillian’s pet may evoke The Wizard of Oz, but Lillian’s difficult, dream-like journey home, far from being just another sibling reunion, is a requiem and, hopefully, a recovery. For Bjørn had vanished twelve months earlier, his body never found – and Lillian, already traumatised by a troubled childhood, has been dealing with the mental fallout of her brother’s death ever since. Bernhard has a special interest in Norwegian folklore, so Kai fills him and the others in on local stories about the supposedly cursed lake: in times past, folk drowned their sick children in it, luring them there with whistling; anyone who dives right to the bottom is said to become immortal; in the 1920s, a local man obsessed with the lake murdered his wife and her lover before taking a suicidal leap into the icy waters; and more recently properties around the lake have suffered a spate of burglaries. 

In other words, this littoral landscape comes overtly overdetermined, as legend laps up against the shores of history, and the natural, the supernatural and the psychological all wash together in the same waters. So when there are strange happenings in and around the house – things going bump in the night, meals mysteriously laid out in the morning before anyone wakes up, the word ‘death’ written in ink on Harald’s forehead, a near drowning – these young weekenders are not sure whether such unexplained occurrences are a prank, a ghostly haunting, a home invasion, or just the somnambular doings of Lillian, who is starting to see things and clearly unravelling now that she is back on her home turf.

If Lake of Death is full of reflections, whether in the lake’s surface or in the many mirrors that decorate the house, it is also a film stirred by the rippling echoes of imitation. Characters in the film expressly compare their circumstances to those from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) – and you do not need to look hard to see further references in the woodland cabin, hidden basement, axed radio and lakeside setting to Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), Bryan Bertono’s The Strangers (2008), Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods (2011) and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (both 1997 and its 2007 remake). Meanwhile the dark bilious liquid that is shown oozing from walls and bodies in Lillian’s regular hallucinations – a physical manifestation of her melancholy and madness – recalls the similar psychic seepage in Joseph Sims-Dennett‘s Observance (2015).  

So Lake of Death openly declares its derivation from several tributaries of modern horror’s mainstream – but its mother source is earlier, older and more natively Norse than any of these. For the film has been loosely adapted from the 1942 novel De dødes tjern by André Bjerke (publishing under the pseudonym Bernhard Bjorge), and reimagines Norway’s first horror feature, Kåre Bergstrøm’s Lake of the Dead (De dødes tjern, 1958, adapted from the same novel) – and as such, it brings horror home, reclaiming the archetypal lakeside cabin in the woods as a distinctly Norwegian locus, and reversing its own supposed indebtedness to similar, more recent titles by showing the influence of Norway’s national cinema on them. The result is an alternate film in other films’ reflections, with a distinctive sense of place.

© Anton Bitel