Having mesmerised horror fandom back in 2015 with his debut The VVitch: A New England Folktale, writer-director/disturbed person Robert Eggers has left cinephiles clamouring ever since for another dose of quintessentially Northeastern malice and madness. With its Shining-like atmosphere (helped in no small part by Mark Korven’s terrifying score), ominous cinematography and central themes of a nuclear family at the mercy of unspeakable evil, the film gave fresh hope to people who felt that no more hard work was really put into the subgenre of psychological horror. In his latest offering, Eggers revisits his home region’s folklore in another frightening tale of isolation and doom and, while it doesn’t hit the notes as perfectly as his freshman effort, it nevertheless leaves an indelible impression.
It’s the 1890’s, and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a young man who has been sent to a secluded island off the coast of Maine to serve as an assistant to an older lighthouse keeper named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) on a month’s contract. As Wake, Dafoe takes the old slang term ‘salty dog’ and ramps it up to 11. Almost like a live-action variant of the Sea Captain character from The Simpsons, he is a wildly eccentric and irritable old man, complete with a corncob pipe and Southwest England accent, impatiently ordering Ephraim to take on the more strenuous duties without complaint, and always quick to berate and/or slap him around should he even question it. His unpredictable temperament, aggressive superstition and tendency to speak largely in rhyme & riddle are sufficient to make Ephraim sorely regret ever setting foot on the rock.
It is undoubtedly Dafoe’s performance that sets the film alight, but props need to given to R-Patz, he has come a hell of a long way since his days of sparkly vampire twaddle (and I for one am glad that he’s blunt about the fact that he thought it was a pile of shit, but he needed to get his foot in the door), proving his ample dramatic chops with the likes of Cosmopolis, Good Time & High Life. He delivers another solid knock out of the park here, infusing Ephraim with a guarded sullenness that keeps the audience on tenterhooks, puzzling over whether it’s a natural reaction to Wake’s uber-difficult personality, or if it betrays the presence of some skeletons in the closet.
After what seems to be only a short period of constantly mopping floors, draining cisterns, trimming the wicks in the oil lamp (hence ‘wickie’, an old-school nickname for a lighthouse keeper), and enduring lots of pirate-accented shouting, things start to get a little bit weird for Ephraim. Plagued by strange visions of tentacles and mermaids, being constantly attacked by a malevolent seagull, and catching glimpses of a nude Wake tossing himself off inside the lantern room, a wonderful ambiguity begins to settle in, leaving us unsure of whether this is a particularly horrendous episode of cabin fever, or if he has literally taken a job in some kind of Sea-Hell.
The technical aspects of the film are stupendously brilliant. Shot in a lush black-and-white 35mm, it captures a particularly maritime sense of claustrophobia with roaring thunder and lightning interspersed with waves furiously crashing against cliffs, and the fact that it takes place predominantly at night only compounds the eeriness. Mark Korven again provides the score, as he did in The VVitch, inspiring a very primal kind of fear with electronic and classical arrangements that evoke the OST of The Shining in the best way possible. Even if there isn’t anything supernatural afoot, the pin-drop nocturnal solitude and Dafoe’s psychotic ramblings about seafaring mythos are enough to send any individual begging for a room at the funny farm.
Another thing that I mustn’t neglect to mention is how humourous the film is. It is a world away from standard comedic procedure, but abundant moments of levity can be found in Wake’s constant flatulence and the progressively bitchy back-and-forth between him and Winslow, the latter ever trying to reconcile the remnants of his rationalism and sanity with the older man’s violent tantrums about bad luck being brought forth from killing seabirds, the utter unacceptability of disliking your host’s cooking and being careful to never piss off the eldritch elements of the Big Drink. It is sure to be underrated in its more hilarious elements, but that’s just a testament to how diligent of a filmmaker Eggers is. It has enough farting, sputtering, wretching, and jism that you could be forgiven for thinking that Rod Serling & Ingmar Bergman co-directed a Twilight Zone episode penned by G.G. Allin.
If I had to pick one thing that I appreciated above all about The Lighthouse, it would be the fact that I had to spend the following day ruminating over how I actually felt about it. It is such a peculiar barrage of madness that I was a little dumbfounded when the credits began to roll, but on reflection I found it to be an amazing piece of work. Extremely well-acted by Dafoe and Pattinson, it is incredible to look at, frightening, disturbing and funny. It has been a long time since I’ve seen such an effective portrait of the effect of prolonged isolation on the human mind, and if it beleaguers the living shit out of your psyche as well, I am glad that it has done its job.