Lake of the Dead benefits from its crisp black-and-white photography and its strong sense of location. When it opens with the still waters of the lake, clotted with weeds and spotted with lily-pads, it front-loads a poetic, dread-filled atmosphere it will rely on throughout. Ophelia could drown in this lake. There’s no way to look at it and not imagine seeing a drowned face in its depths.
And that’s good, because that’s the mood Lake of the Dead needs, even if it never quite commits to it. The film springs from the novel of the same name–written (under a pseudonym) by André Bjerke, who also plays Mørk–and the book, with a bit more room than the film’s too-tight 76 minutes, can afford to swing back and forth between the arch and the ominous. One scene in particular, involving a character standing before a closed door he must open, is tense, terrifying, and searingly memorable–when the narrative can devote time to the unease. The book can. The film can’t, and its breeziness hurts it.
What the film can preserve is the novel’s perverse cheeriness, as if this is a cozy mystery set in the middle of The Blair Witch Project. The story begins with a group of friends heading to a cabin in the woods, the one thing no one should ever do in anything even vaguely horror-adjacent.
The party consists of audience surrogate character Berhard Borge (Henki Kolstad), a crime writer bemusedly resigned to being outclassed by most of his friends; his wife, the bright and witty Sonja (Bjørg Engh); literary critic Mørk (Bjerke), who venerates the supernatural as much as he eviscerates the commonplaces; gentlemanly psychologist Bugge (Erling Lindahl); lawyer Gran (Georg Richter); and, last but not least, Gran’s fiancée, Liljan Werner (Henny Moan), a vibrantly tense young woman who is very worried about her twin brother. The brother in question, Bjørn (Per Lillo-Stenberg), rented this isolated cabin some time ago, but it’s been a while since Liljan has heard from him. That’s unusual, and her concern is exacerbated by old-fashioned twin telepathy: she’s always been able to sense when her brother is in trouble, and she senses it now.
She has good reason to be alarmed. The cabin is rumored to be haunted by the malevolent spirit of its former owner, a man whose obsessive love for his sister led him to kill her, her lover, and finally himself, casting his victims’ bodies in the lake before drowning himself there. Now it’s said that he possesses anyone who stays under his roof for too long. (Borge is the one person who, upon hearing this story, would much rather relocate to the nearest Holiday Inn–or its 1950s Norwegian equivalent. Relatable.) The lake is ominous even without the ghost story: it’s supposedly bottomless, the vacationers are informed, and most people who drown in it are never retrieved from its depths.
Sonja immediately strips down to her bathing suit and swims in it, as one does. Nothing says summer fun like a lake full of dead people.
It doesn’t take long for Liljan to discover her brother’s tracks leading to the edge of the lake–and then seemingly vanishing into the waters. His dog lies dead near the shore.
The simplest explanation is that Bjørn suffered some kind of breakdown, shot his dog, waded out into the lake, and let the waters close over his head. That’s the theory Bugge subscribes to, at least at first.
No, Gran says: Bjørn was murdered. Someone has just made it look like a suicide, which is why the last entry in Bjørn’s journal seems to be written in a different hand.
Mørk is devoted to a third option: the supernatural. The ghost possessed Bjørn, who wrote about being tormented by it in the days leading up to his disappearance, and made him kill himself. As long as they’re here, they’re all in danger … especially since there are signs that someone resembling the long-dead murderer is prowling around their cabin.
Borge, meanwhile, just wishes someone would tell him what’s going on. He saves Liljan from sleepwalking into the lake–was it natural? Hypnosis? Ghost possession?–and everyone still basically just pats him on the head and leaves him out of things, forcing him to poke around at the edges of the plot.
You would think that dangers both potential–possession, a killer on the loose–and definite–Liljan’s nearly deadly sleepwalking, the intruder who lurks in Borge’s room in the dark–would be enough to cast a shadow over this particular holiday. If nothing else, you’d think the group would be rocked by the death or mysterious disappearance of their old friend, or at least scrambling to comfort the missing man’s grief-stricken sister. Instead, everyone is surprisingly chill. There’s a lake full of dead bodies outside, but inside, it’s almost all chess games, clever repartee, possible affairs, and acidic but good-humored debates about the nature of their problem.
In a way, it makes sense. Lake of the Dead is firmly and openly grounded in Freudian theories of the subconscious, and nearly everything that really matters here is rotting below the smooth surface of the lake. It’s hard for the characters to directly touch on it, so they deflect, examining something brutal and mournful through abstract philosophical and social lenses. It’s telling that when they finally deal with all this head-on, the climax involves two characters on their bellies in the slimy grass by the lake, low and messy and helpless. They’re down as close to the unconscious mind as they can go.
The film needs more of its darker elements to truly succeed. As it is, it suffers from rarely letting itself take a breath, let alone one deep enough to really take a plunge into its lake. The result is an odd, slightly off-kilter little movie that’s interesting and visually striking but, alas, a tad too conversational. The best way to watch it is to dwell on how damn weird it is beneath its complacent surface–and to keep looking for drowned faces.
Lake of the Dead is streaming on Tubi.