In the age of constant advertising and ramped up social media campaigns, it’s easy to call a film one of the scariest of the year or “elevated horror.” Last year’s Hereditary was dubbed “the scariest movie since The Exorcist.” This year’s The Lighthouse, directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch), is earning similar praise. So does the film live up to the buzz? Perhaps we need to ignore the hype and appreciate a film for what it is, not expecting the next Exorcist. The Lighthouse, like The Witch, Hereditary, Get Out, and Midsommar, deserves to be viewed without unrealistic expectations. Doing so increases the enjoyment of the hallucinatory, black and white nightmare that Eggers has created, buoyed by superb performances by William Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
Like The Witch, The Lighthouse is a film heavy on mood and atmosphere, in this case bleak tones and a 4:3 ratio that makes for tight frames. At times, it tests a viewer’s attention, since most of the plot details are revealed through dialogue between Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow and Dafoe’s wide-eyed, Captain Ahab-like Thomas Wake. This isn’t a film heavy on action or jump scares. Half of the scenes focus on Winslow’s day to day grind as a lighthouse hand during the late 19th Century in Maine. He scrubs floors, shovels coal, and even empties pots of shit and piss. He’s doing what he has to do to earn a living, essentially. Meanwhile, he has to deal with his boss, a seasoned seaman who constantly looms over him, berating him to work faster, while taking notes in a brown leather journal that he locks away in a wooden cabinet each night. If Winslow is the proletariat just scrapping by, then Thomas is a boss holding a bullwhip, telling the worker he’ll suck the rust off of nails if that’s what he’s asked to do. Otherwise, he’ll withhold his wages. Eventually, Winslow has enough, and the longer the men are stranded, the more he slips into drinking and madness, especially once a storm seizes the island and ocean waters and howling winds pound the feeble shelter. As water surges through the windows and pours through the old roof, you can feel the dampness and hopelessness.
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Much has been made of the folk horror elements of The Witch. Trying to even define folk horror can be tough, but in short, it’s a subgenre that references European and pagan traditions and/or emphasizes the horrific side of folklore. In The Witch, the Puritan family brings their superstitions to the new world and blames their farming woes on witchcraft and the devil. The oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), bears the brunt of the blame once the patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), accuses her of witchcraft. The Lighthouse doesn’t have any specific references to Europe or pagan traditions, per say, but in Thomas, a wild-haired, grizzled man of the sea, it does have references to ancient superstitions. He warns Winslow not to anger or kill any seagulls because they carry the souls of sailors. The film also has plenty or references to sirens, especially during some of the more dream-like sequences. Sirens are known for luring sailors to their death through their song and seduction. Thomas is a product of the old world in his own way, since he maintains ancient traditions and superstitions. He even recites the same lines each time that they toast before dinner. Winslow, meanwhile, is a product of the new world and the industrial revolution. He worked as a logger in Canada before taking the job at the lighthouse. He does what he needs to do to get by. A job is merely a job to him, unlike Thomas, who caries the history, tradition, and rituals into the present. Additionally, nature strikes back against the men the moment that Winslow ignores Thomas’ advice and refuses to play nice with the gulls, whose squawking is but one factor that pushes him over the edge. One seagull in particular becomes a star in the film as much as Black Phillip in The Witch.
Perhaps even more than folk horror, The Lighthouse is influenced by German Expressionist films, and not only because of the black and white, 35 mm factor. It has as much of a dream-like quality as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and it uses shadow and stark imagery to evoke the same type of dread as Nosferatu. In a recent interview, Eggers again brought up his desire to direct a remake of the classic vampire film. Let’s hope it happens.
The Lighthouse is a film whose images will stay with you after the credits roll, but it’s as much of a slow-burn as The Witch. That said, witnessing Pattinson slip into madness the louder the lighthouse horn bellows is worth it. Dafoe, meanwhile, delivers on the dialogue in the second half, including one scene where he urges the sea gods to smite Laslow simply because he insulted his cooking. It’s also a film where you question what’s real and what isn’t, including the backstories the men tell each other as the weeks wear on. The film should be seen in theaters for the way that Egger shot it. All the labels and hype aside, Eggers has created a nightmare at sea. Let the speculation commence regarding his next project.