Writer-director Robert Eggers comes at us once again with his second film The Lighthouse. The director of 2015’s sensational horror classic The Witch again roots around in the soil of early American history but in a style distinct from his first film. It’s dark, grotesque and boldly experimental. Responses will vary but I found it a fine example of “fusion” cinema, a recipe where the basic pleasures of genre movies are successfully joined with the skills — and ambitions — of high art.
Like most horror tales, the plot of The Lighthouse is as simple as a line drawing. And unlike other genre forms, all of which are outward-looking, horror is the one best suited to cast a light inside, down into the cellars of the human psyche.
Of course, it’s the drawing of the details within those lines that count and Eggers and his team have brought every brush and pencil in their box.
Sets in the mid-1800s, the film opens with two men sailing through the foggy wind-whipped sea to a tiny barren New England coastal island to spend four weeks together taking care of its lighthouse.
They’re a mangy and perfectly ill-matched pair. For young Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a lonesome callow wanderer whose life ’til now has been a fraying string of failures, this is only a four-week temp job, one for the money to fulfill his young man’s nebulous dream of independence. The lighthouse means nothing to him, a waystation for a drifter.
For veteran keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), the lighthouse is the light of his little gray life, his home bubble floating offshore from the world. Rude, truculent and abusive, he’s a flatulent old grump with no tolerance for fools, which means the whole human race. He’s a Captain Ahab writ in tiny print, but with no white whale to pursue, only his own misery.
With no HR department within miles to call him to account, Wake takes full advantage of their isolation, hopping back and forth over the borders of madness as he flays Winslow’s body and soul to shreds. He bosses the newbie temp employee like a dog while forbidding him access to the lantern room, a sanctum that may bring thoughts of H.P. Lovecraft, rippling with cosmic tentacled threat. He also plays a hell of a game of “gaslighting.”
The interior and exterior dynamics provide the fuel for this closet drama. Not surprisingly, as happens with the poor castoff Puritans in The Witch, isolation and loneliness bring madness. Before long, Winslow, suffering from abuse, isolation (and that great illness of horror characters, loneliness) begins to crack like an egg as visions ooze out, some of them grotesquely sexual, some of them involving a mermaid, some of them involving matters you must see for yourself.
And once Winslow crosses one of Wake’s most precious lines, hell comes to breakfast and stays through lunch and dinner in the form of a storm that further whips the storms raging within. It’s a bit like Sartre’s No Exit — Hell is other people, especially for those trapped on a storm-wracked island. But, as the film takes pain to point out, humans don’t do well all alone, either.
Eggers takes a fresh approach to his material, in defiance of some contemporary practices. He and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shot the film in black-and-white 35mm in the old 1:19 aspect ratio (an approach similar to A Ghost Story, another excellent genre movie of a few years back). But while the film is square, it paints in a wide spectrum of charcoal hues, with shadows dipped in noir black. It has that awful beauty that can only be tolerated at a distance.
The effect is to crush Wake and Winslow in a haunting, steamy and rancid intimacy. The drama and images are well-scored by composer Mark Korven, whose score for The Witch swam similar subterranean currents. Sound often plays a crucial role in good horror films — especially the use of silence — and it fulfills its role here.
Like The Witch, The Lighthouse fully inhabits its world, from the fiercely detailed sets and costumes through the dialogue (co-written with Max Eggers and drawn from historical documents). Finally, there’s the rich committed performances by the two leads. This is my first time in the house with Robert Pattinson, and I was deeply impressed at how he bravely portrays feckless young Winslow’s plunge into madness. He’s also going toe to toe with the great Willem Dafoe who’s been both great and never better as he is here. You can practically see the fleas jumping out of Wake’s wretched core.
Yet, I can’t say I’m as satisfied with The Lighthouse as I was with The Witch, a film which sent me pogo-sticking out of the theatre the first time and still casts a deep spell.
There’s no dramatic build in The Lighthouse. It launches right into a high pitch of hysteria and pretty much stays there, leaving it little room to rise emotionally, as the film crushes itself against its low ceiling. With both Winslow and Wake bordering on madness from first breath, a touch of monotony sets in. The result, along with Eggers’ daring formal experiments in subjectivism, left me a little cold and distant. Unlike The Witch, which sews you fully into the world and minds of its characters, The Lighthouse occasionally feels like an experimental college film whose daring technique leaves more of an imprint on the mind than the heart.
That aside, though, The Lighthouse is well worth the time for highbrow horror fans. The term “auteur” still gets slapped on anyone who walks onto a soundstage, but, I think it safe to say, Robert Eggers has fully earned it.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” will appear in the upcoming anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, 2020). He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller, which was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character)! His contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.