Should pale death, with treble dread, make the ocean caves our bed, God who hears the surges roll deign to save our suppliant soul.
Director Robert Eggers made quite a splash with the unsettling horror film The Witch. With The Lighthouse, he ramps that sense of unsettlement up to eleven and creates a horror movie that centers around madness and features two incredible performances from a pair of actors that are often underappreciated for their craft.
The Lighthouse is set entirely on a small island where a solitary lighthouse is to be manned by two men who are also the sole human occupants of the island for four weeks until the next relief comes. Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake is the old grizzled sea dog of the pair who is the senior in charge and has been doing lighthouse duties for a long time now — perhaps too long. Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow, is the young newcomer who has taken his first lighthouse duties thinking there would be good money in it by the end.
The pair are strangers to each other and it’s not even until about halfway through the film that they even exchange names. Tensions begin on the very first day as Pattinson’s character refuses to drink during dinner with the veteran, saying it is against regulations. The old man treats Pattinson as nothing more than a hard laborer. He has him doing all the repairs, all the hard work, and the cleaning. All this time he is noting everything in a log book and makes it clear that he is the only one that maintains with the lighthouse lamp.
As the days and weeks go by, nerves begin to fray as Winslow becomes tired of Wake’s old sea stories and verbal abuses. Winslow begins to see things that he is not sure is real or imagined. All this time, the relationship between the pair wax from friendliness to outright physical fights as they while away nights drinking alcohol.
Throughout the film, Eggers creates a feeling of dread and unease as we and Winslow question whether what he has seen is either real or not. It does not help that Wake questions the youth’s own grip on reality about questionable actions that are presented as those of Wake’s.
Their confines are claustrophobic and made to look even more so as the films was shot in the narrow aspect ratio of 1.19:1 which is even more narrow of an aspect ration than old tube televisions which were 1.33:1. It is also shot with stark black and white film which adds to the atmospheric nature of dread that permeates the entire movie. The cinematography is by Jarin Blashke, who had also shot The Witch for Eggers previously. While that was a film that was muted in colors, the decision to go black and white for The Lighthouse makes every shadow and every scene all the more unsettling. Location filming took place at the real lighthouse on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia. The normally attractive tourist spot becomes a menacing gothic figure surrounded by crashing waves and angry storms under the lens of Bashke.
Accompanying this beautifully shot film is a menacing score by Mark Korven, another alum from Egger’s The Witch. From the opening shot, ominous deep minor notes immediately make you aware that an impending dark tale is about to unfold and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Throughout the narrative, Korven’s score looms over scenes like a heavy anchor around the necks of the characters, weighing the feel of the film down with moods of unease, even in the most mundane of scenes.
Much of what makes this film work hinges on the ability of just two actors to carry this film with a minimum of budget and special effects. Fortunately for us, Eggers draws out some of the best performances on the year from the two cast members. Robert Pattinson has steadily been building a solid acting resume, post Twilight and he is steadily maturing as one of the most respected and accomplished actors of his age. Willem Dafoe turns in what is possibly his best performance ever as Thomas Wake, channeling a dark abusive old sea dog, chewing on a pipe, and dripping salty, often vitriolic lines.
Despite this being a horror film, it won’t appeal to all horror fans. There are no jump scares and there is no masked slasher slowly stalking victims trying to run away. Much of the horror in this is psychological and builds up as characters begin to lose their grips on sanity. Soon both men will descend into their own form of madness and we as a viewer are left to wonder whose vision of reality is true — or even if both of them are not seeing things as they are. Most certainly, the ending may not make much sense to average horror fans but even so, it will be one of those endings that will make you think about it after the lights come on in the cinema. If there is a universal lesson that we can all take from this film it’s that it’s bad luck to kill a seabird.
Robert Eggers, with his follow-up to The Witch is carving a niche for himself in the horror genre that elevates him to an auteur status that is currently occupied by artists of vision like Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) who are changing how we see modern horror movies. Instead of going for cheap jump-scares and torture porn deaths, they make you feel dread, fear, and unease. And in the end that is those things make for good horror.
Final Score: 9/10
Bonus Content: While watching The Lighthouse, I could not help but think of an episode of The Simpsons. And true to the South Park meme, The Simpsons already did it with an episode titled Mountain of Madness where Mr. Burns and Homer are trapped in a cabin together and they slowly go mad. Of course it’s not the exact same story but it is a little fun to compare the two.
So for legal reasons, and for my declaration of fair use, below is a clip from that episode.