Lady of the Lake (1998)

Lady of the Lake (1998)

When his uncle dies by drowning in Owl Lake, David (Erik Rutherford) moves into the man’s house by said lake. Quickly, David encounters peculiar things: he finds a handful of too new photos of a strange, beautiful woman named Viviane (Tennyson Loeh) he remembers encountering by the lake when he was boy, and he begins having erotic dreams of her in which a mirror in the house works as a gate to the depths of the lake where Viviane seems to dwell. Soon, David can’t quite make out anymore where dreams and reality part, and certainly not on which side of that divide Viviane belongs.

His sleazy neighbour Anthony (Emidio Michetti) tells David his uncle didn’t just drown but was killed by Viviane, who is a cursed creature haunting the are for what I assume must be a hundred years or so – or whenever you suppose Renfaire style “gypsies” were roaming Canada – having to seduce and later kill men to avenge her own murder by pseudo-Renfaire knight Richard (Christopher Piggins). Actually, Anthony has rather personal knowledge of Viviane (which makes her being necessarily murderous somewhat problematic to believe) but he isn’t telling.

Given his experiences up to that point, David isn’t quite as sceptical about the story as you’d think but when a slightly more real Viviane asks him if he’d like her to stay with him for seven days and leave him forever afterwards, he’s much too love struck to disagree. Plot-wise, things go a bit off the rails soon after.

I was very impressed by director Maurice Devereaux’s later End of the Line, so obviously I had to go out and look for one of his earlier films. I’m rather happy I did, too, for while Lady of the Lake has some flaws, particularly during a third act that needlessly heaps more obvious action and some fine yet completely out of place gore onto a film that could have used a more low key and perhaps even subtle approach to tying its plot up, there’s a lot of good in the film.

I particularly enjoyed how much of Devereaux’s narrative has the feel and texture of a slightly modernized folk tale. A cursory internet search didn’t tell me if it’s based on a legend actually native to the Owl Lake area but the motives and structure of the tale are just right to be one in any case. Consequently, Lady of the Lake often feels more like a fantasy film than an outright piece of horror in its approach. Viviane, you see, might be a murderous spirit, but the way the film plays it, she’s also the innocent victim of things she has no control over, in a sense further punished for being murdered by a guy who couldn’t take no for an answer. The film leaves it unclear if Viviane’s former lovers’ mental deterioration to violent pricks is caused by the workings of her curse, or if these are just more cases of men not being able to cope with rejection without resorting to violence; if love turns to hate for them because it sometimes does, or because of the supernatural (or both). Given the film’s (very appropriate to this kind of tale) ending, I suspect it’s more if the former than of the latter.

In any case, unlike a lot of films featuring female sex-based supernatural creatures, this one doesn’t seem at all out to (even subtextually) demonize female sexuality; as should be obvious by now, it is not at all difficult to give Lady of the Lake an at least mildly feminist reading. It’s a rather uncommon approach that fits the film nicely. Its problems start when a peculiar time travel sequence makes Richard an active participant in the film’s proceedings. Suddenly turning this into a film with a very clear outward threat when it was doing very fine on its own in a more interesting, compassionate and ambiguous manner certainly isn’t doing the film any favours; it’s also less than helpful that Christopher Piggins’s performance as EVIL Richard is scene-chewing and broad in a film where everyone else goes for the low-key and the non-showy (sometimes with an added bit of indie horror acting awkwardness I’m pretty okay with here). Nor does it do the film many favours to remind its audience again of the weakest part of its set-up, the Renfaire folk of Canada. Structurally, the film gains a climax of outward excitement that doesn’t actually finish the plot in any way and de-emphasizes the actual resolution running parallel to it that fits the film much, much better.

That this doesn’t just straight up ruin the film for me has a lot to do with the care Devereaux put into the fifty minutes or so that came before, the simple and very clever use of effects (let’s ignore the digital fire), the atmospheric use of those old staple colours of artificial light in fantastic film, blue and red, the tight and imaginative editing that gives the film just the right flow, and a script that is (up to the point described and later again) more thoughtful than it actually needs to be. And all this while the film obviously has to work around a miniscule budget that should invite the usual “the catering for a mildly budgeted mainstream film will cost more” comparisons. Though, to be clear, the film’s good moments (that add up to an hour in all) don’t actually need the budget as an excuse; they’re well worth one’s time in any case.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?