By Scott Dorward
The Lighthouse (USA, 2019)
Over the past couple of years, a ludicrous number of people have told me to watch The Lighthouse. Everything I heard made it sound like exactly the kind of film I love. Robert Eggers’ previous feature, The Witch, was remarkable and I’ve been keen to see what he did next. The only reason I’ve dragged my heels is that it’s taken this long to turn up on any of my streaming services. Happily, it’s been worth the wait.
Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) has taken on a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island. He is working under Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), a more experienced keeper. From the outset, the relationship between the two men is strained as Wake delegates all the heavy labour while denying Winslow access to the lantern room. Wake, in turn, dislikes Winslow for being taciturn and refusing to drink with him at mealtimes.
As he goes about his duties, Winslow is tormented by a gull. Wake warns him that it would be bad luck to kill the creature, but Winslow eventually snaps and beats it to death. The wind immediately changes, signalling rough weather ahead.
A storm hits the island on the day Winslow’s contract comes to an end. With the wind and rain rising, the relief vessel never arrives. The two men, stranded on the island with dwindling supplies, descend into drunkenness and madness, revealing terrible secrets and committing even more terrible acts.
Visually, The Lighthouse looks like it could have been made 100 or more years ago. The grainy black-and-white photography, stark lighting and square aspect ratio make it seem like a lost artefact from the age of silent film, although it is very much a talkie. Of course, some of the more extreme content would never have made it onto the screen in those days, even before the Hays Code. Although the lack of colour softens the effect, there is a lot of death and mutilation in The Lighthouse, and a surprising amount of sexuality.
Both Pattinson and Dafoe turn in amazing performances. Almost every scene is charged with intense emotion, whether simmering or in full force. Still, Pattinson is upstaged by the belligerent gull every time it comes on screen. Whoever trained the bird deserves an award of their own. I have never seen a bird convey such pure malice. It is a worthy animal successor to Black Philip.
While the tone and story are completely different, I kept thinking of the 2017 film, Cold Skin. Both it and The Lighthouse share a premise of a younger lighthouse keeper coming to work for a more experienced one on a remote island. In Cold Skin, however, it is not just isolation and madness threatening the two men, but something altogether more Lovecraftian.
It is a weird experience watching The Lighthouse over 18 months into the pandemic. For many of us, isolation has become an everyday fact of life. Watching these two men stripped of their social graces and then their sanity resonates all too well. I hope most of us still fart less enthusiastically, however.
The Lighthouse is everything I hoped it would be. As some of the other selections this month have shown, it is all too easy for a slow, moody horror film to fall prey to tedium. There is no risk of that here. Just watching the two leads arguing over the mundane details of keeping the lighthouse running is tense enough. Once the delusions and violence set in, every scene crackles with dark energy.
Like The Witch, this is a relatively straightforward story, told with imagination. The final act is a little more oblique in places, filled with mythological allusions. Some key revelations slip out as hints or in the midst of insane diatribes, demanding our attention. Even then, everything is wrapped up nicely enough that I cannot imagine the resolution frustrating frustrating too many people.
The fact that I’m not sure if The Lighthouse will be my pick of the month owes more to the strength of the other films than any weakness here. This is an excellent piece of work.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!