In the 1890s, crude lightkeeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his new aide (Robert Pattinson) man a lonely and remote New England lighthouse. What starts off as a battle with boredom descends into insanity as endless storms trap them on the island with diminishing supplies and increasing suspicions.
It’s a been a long time between scares for indie-horror director-writer Robert Eggers. Arriving on the scene with the delightfully creepy Witch in 2015, it’s taken four years for a return to his dread-inducing version of New England. A pair of captivating lead actors, an inhospitable, stormy island setting, and enough alcohol to feed a navy make The Lighthouse an asylum of tense confusion that will shiver your timbers.
The look of the film is an intriguing call back to silent horror films of the 1920s, with an aspect ratio to match. In compressing the screen into a square familiar to classic European cinema, Eggers emphasises the narrative’s old-world sensibilities while also heightening a feeling of repression. It’s genius filmmaking, and testament to Eggers’ knowledge of cinematography. His directing flair doesn’t stop there – filming in black and white furthers The Lighthouse’s vintage feel and allows Eggers to play with shading. Light and darkness are used to carve up the character’s features and cut spaces in two. One scene, with a monologue that could have come straight from Moby Dick, horrifically distorts Thomas Wake’s face using harsh lighting. It’s darkly reminiscent of the classic Phantom of the Opera and an intriguing experiment in modern horror with an eye very much on the past.
The plot is built on a simple formula – trap two characters on a remote island with no escape and watch melancholy turn to madness. Making isolation the enemy is used to great effect in horror classics like The Shining simply because of the range of narrative scares that stem from a fevered imagination. Malicious seagulls, seductive mermaids, and a terrifying, tentacled sea god are seen throughout The Lighthouse, with these aquatic metaphors helping to build an atmosphere of paranoia. However, the individual effect of these sea-faring symbols is mixed – some are undoubtedly cathartic for the plot, others seem there to add more nautical texture. As an example, a foreboding seagull prominent at the start of the film is left by the wayside as the plot develops. Sometimes less is more in horror films, and Eggers could have improved The Lighthouse by following through on all his fear building ideas. He could also have done more to raise tension gradually as his scary scenes ebb and flow rather than build to a climax.
The acting performances from Dafoe and Pattinson are powerhouse, if a touch melodramatic. The Lighthouse is really a two-man show, so the pair needed to bring humanity to their chemistry that makes the film’s Gothic madness approachable. Through Pattinson’s Winslow we see all reason wash away in the face of isolation, while Dafoe’s lighthouse keeper Wake is all wild-eyed dedication to drink and duties. As the film progresses, the pair’s increasing mania leads us to constantly question whether what we see is real, imagined by one, or by both. Wake’s potential gaslighting and Winslow’s mysterious past means are never sure who is to blame for the horrors that unfold – we see what happens but can never really KNOW what happens. Lesser actors couldn’t have managed the balance between making the narrative unreliable and showing us why it is so through nuanced characterisation – but Dafoe and Pattinson deserve every plaudit they get here and more.
What The Lighthouse lacks in a structured plot it makes up for in atmosphere building. It may not be your favourite horror – but you’re unlikely to forget it. 7/10.