Back in 2015, Robert Eggers caused a stir within the horror community with his stellar debut The Witch. Rightfully acclaimed for its authenticity and unwavering attention to building all-consuming atmosphere and dread, it was selected by HeadStuff as our horror film of the decade.
After The Witch, fans eagerly awaited Eggers’ next move. Fast forward to present day and the filmmaker has returned to the horror genre with his sophomore effort The Lighthouse. Shot on black and white 35mm film, it centers around two lighthouse keepers – accurately referred to by the antiquated term ”wickies” here – as they serve out their contractual obligations tending to a suitably ominous beacon in 19th century New England.
Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake is a less than welcoming elderly supervisor who has become enamored by this strange lighthouse. Meanwhile Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow has arrived to simply see out his four-week contract and leave a slight bit richer from doing so.
Opening with the grainy monochromatic visual of a boat emerging from thick fog, accompanied by the aural assault of a nightmarish droning foghorn, The Lighthouse wastes no time in ensuring that Eggers’ latest is also focused primarily on atmosphere and dread. Priding himself on making viewers feel genuinely uneasy, the filmmaker’s vision of Promethean despair excels in so many different aspects – the most profound of these being the relationship between Wake and Winslow.
Both Dafoe and Pattinson are superb with the latter giving arguably the strongest performance of his acting career. Dafoe snarls and antagonizes Pattinson relentlessly, forcing his character to emerge from his protective, almost entirely silent, shell. This causes conflict and huge tension between Wake and Winslow. It is only a matter of time before the engulfing darkness and endless depths surrounding both men begin to meddle with their sanity.
Eggers’ dedication to researching the spoken dialect of wickies and fisherman of that era helps cement the authenticity of his characters to incredible levels. Dafoe quizzes and riddles every time he speaks and Pattinson matches that with a more grounded approach, both becoming increasingly manic as they descend into deafening madness. Dafoe’s Wake harbours dark secrets and Pattinson’s Winslow becomes obsessed with whatever his superior may be hiding. This leads to an entertaining game of cat and mouse between the two, in which both become constantly drunk, unashamedly disrespectful to one another and fascinatingly unhinged.
The chemistry between the duo is fascinating to watch unravel. Even fart jokes are somehow elevated above mere tropes. It is clear that both Dafoe and Pattinson committed 150 per cent to their parts and it will be harder to find more convincing performances, especially in horror, anywhere.
Amongst the madness, Eggers skillfully weaves genuine comedy to help ease the audience back towards some form of ‘safety’. This humour is not merely added to simply make audiences laugh after a jump scare like most horror nowadays. Instead, each comedic moment is carefully constructed, emerging naturally from the strained relationship between Wake and Winslow and serving to deepen their characters. It’s strange to see a Lovecraftian inspired horror movie be so goddamn hilarious but the blend of psychological terror, fantasy and comedy only adds to The Lighthouse’s uniqueness.
In terms of plot, Eggers does an incredible job at reining in the madness when needed. What begins as a quiet affair quickly spirals out of control and will have you questioning what is real and not. Coupled with a breakneck pace that presents itself about halfway through, The Lighthouse is never dull. It may not be your standard run of the mill horror and thus may lose a few viewers but every choice that Eggers makes throughout builds confidently towards a hugely engrossing if difficult to dissect finale.
I can’t finish this review without touching on the brilliance of The Lighthouse’s score. Mark Korven’s soundtrack feels absolutely monstrous like some sort of Cthulhu-esque aberration emerging from the depths to consume both Wake and Winslow. Mermaids have never seemed so menacingly tempting and seagulls have never felt so vicious thanks to Korven’s prowess here. The music drones, churns, seduces and mutates into grotesque sound after grotesque sound. Long after leaving the cinema, that frightening foghorn echoes in the viewer’s mind.
The Lighthouse is a movie that toys with your emotions and makes you feel desperately uncomfortable while transporting you back to a period you can’t help but become fascinated with. It evokes everything sinister within the human psyche and splashes it onto the screen for all to interpret. The Lighthouse feels like no other. With it, Robert Eggers has proved that he is a force to be reckoned with. You may love it or hate it. I’m just happy I got to witness it in all its demented glory.