“The Lighthouse”

“The Lighthouse”

There are all sorts of ways to scare someone. You could jump out at them. You could gross them out. You could make them feel unsafe. Or you could give them an itchy, eerie, creepy feeling—make it a skin-crawling spook fest.

Or you could strip away all that—all the gore, the goons and ghosts and goblins; the fog and cobwebs and blood—and do something more basic, more primal. You could give them a snapshot of people in isolation. Of the inherent frailty of the human mind. Of what it is like to be unhappy, lonely, guilty, angry, resentful. All you have to do, really, is show them what it is like to be a human when things aren’t going so well.

That’s “The Lighthouse.” It’s two men getting stuck at a lighthouse. That pretty much sums up this movie. Just two grumpy, crusty, sailor-looking dudes who’ve got no money or education or dentists (apparently), and who can’t really stand each other, who get stranded on a remote little lighthouse island somewhere in the cold, blustery New England sea.

And yes, absolutely, this is a horror movie.

The first crusty dude—the younger of the two—is Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). He arrives on the island to make a little money as an assistant operating a lighthouse for four weeks. He just needs some cash to set himself up when he goes home.

The second crusty dude—an old salt if there ever was one—is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). He’s straight from “Moby Dick.” When not barking orders, guzzling liquor and farting, he tells poetic tales and recites oceanic mythology in a thick, lyrical Irish accent. He has wild, bushy hair, a full beard, a limp and a ship tattooed on his chest.

Right from the get-go, things are bad. Particularly for Winslow. Although he is not too much of a talker, he seems to have hoped for a more-or-less congenial four weeks sharing duties at the lighthouse. No such luck. Wake immediately makes it clear that he’s in charge, that he’s not to be questioned, and that Winslow is to do all of the menial tasks while he looks after the lantern atop the lighthouse.

Then Winslow starts having these crazy dreams that include, among other things, dead bodies, logs and a creepy mermaid. And Wake, for his part, has some kind of mystical regard for the lighthouse lantern. God only knows what he’s doing up there while on watch.

The line between reality and … well, I don’t know … dreams? Hallucinations? Mere thought? At any rate, it all becomes very blurry. They’re going crazy, each in their own way. It’s kind of like “The Shining,” nautical edition. And at no point in the movie does it feel like things are going to end any better for Winslow and Wake.

Part of that feeling has to do with a pounding fog horn that batters your psyche like relentless waves harassing the seashore. I’m not sure whether the foghorn is coming from the lighthouse or passing ships, but, it communicates pure, inescapable doom.

The rest of the sound editing in “The Lighthouse” is equally effective. As is the bleak, harsh black-and-white cinematography. Just in general, the look and feel of this movie is as striking as it is a perfect fit for what is going on in the movie. It’s beautifully done—and horrific.

“The Lighthouse” is, like the lives of the island’s two inhabitants, elemental. It doesn’t get its “horror” designation via anything too fancy, or jumpy, or gory. It’s more basic—images, facial expressions, thoughts and feelings that, in another context, might not be that scary. But, on that lonesome rock, they chill to the bone.

Director Robert Eggers pulls off a real feat of storytelling. He taps into the deepest human anxieties and fears without any of the frills.  

“The Lighthouse” is rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language.

Matt Duncan, a former Coastal View News editor, has taken physical but not emotional leave from Carpinteria to be a philosophy professor at Rhode Island College. In his free time from philosophizing, Duncan enjoys chasing his kids around, watching movies and updating his movie review blog, duncansreeldeal.blogspot.com.

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