A Visionary Take on Vintage Horror

movie review by guest student writer Faven Gerima

On nights like these, everything feels a bit more unreal. The drizzling rain hitting my window is unending and relentless. Day melts away and the rest of the city is fast asleep in bed, yet there is something charged in the air that keeps me wide awake. The feeling is difficult to describe; my memory drifts back to when I was a child, hiding under the covers from the shadowy shapes in the corner of my room. It is the irrational yet bone-deep certainty that there is something lying in wait.

If you listen hard enough, the howling wind in the chimney begins to sound more like wavering voices. Every creak from the empty attic is an invitation. The rustling bush outside your house is no longer a stray cat, but something far more sinister daring you to leave the safety of your bed to peek out into the pitch-black yard. On nights like these, there is a thrill in watching a horror movie to match the uneasy atmosphere. The Lighthouse was perfect for stoking the flames of my paranoid imagination.

Released in 2019, The Lighthouse is a critically acclaimed black-and-white horror film set in the 1890s. Interestingly, a completely functional lighthouse was built in Nova Scotia, Canada, to fit the purposes of the film. The movie plays on themes of all-consuming desire and unreality. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) takes up a contract job to tend to a lighthouse on a remote island off the coast of New England with the help of a surly old man named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Winslow soon discovers that there’s something not quite right about this place or his strange colleague, but by then its too late for him to escape the enthralling beacon of the lighthouse.

Interest still very high in film project in Yarmouth and in the ...
Lighthouse being built for the movie (photo: Saltwire)

Being stuck at home with nothing to do during this pandemic is an excellent time to watch The Lighthouse with its themes of extreme isolation and confinement. I felt as though I could somewhat relate to Winslow’s plight; trapped in my house with nobody but my aggravating siblings for company, anyone would feel as though they’re going stir-crazy. Honestly, the scene where Winslow complains about Wake’s cooking until the other man’s temper explodes felt like it was shot from my dinner table.

The idea of watching a film with only two actors had me a little hesitant at first. Admittedly, it wasn’t the intriguing trailer that finally won me over, but news headlines such as Robert Pattinson’s Revolting ‘Lighthouse’ Shoot Included Eating Mud, Pissing Himself (IndieWire) and tweets raving about Willem Dafoe barking like a dog.

There were certainly no shortcuts taken to have the movie look as realistic as possible. Pattinson even explains in interviews that he was often blackout drunk as he was acting to fully encapsulate his character’s manic bouts of intoxication. His dedication to his role payed off in his portrayal of Winslow’s downward spiral, becoming a shell of the man he once was as reality seemed to decay around him.

Willem Dafoe delivered his iconic monologues with a spiteful intensity. It was chilling to watch him adopt a crazed look in his eyes, as if possessed by a vengeful spirit. Scenes featuring unspoken homoeroticism and passive aggression made this film a charged panorama of repression. Both Pattinson and Dafoe fully embraced their roles as men driven to the brink of madness.

I was unsure as to whether I would find a black-and-white movie entertaining enough to keep me awake, but The Lighthouse’s insane dialogue and clever camera angles had me considering staying up far past midnight just to watch it again. I think that the beauty of this movie lies in its picture-perfect frames. Director Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke outdid themselves; there were countless moments that I felt the urge to pause and admire the placement of an object or the meaningful framing of the camera.

Aged camera lenses paired with the uncommonly used Kodak Double-X 35mm film were deliberately used to enhance the movie’s vintage quality. The square aspect ratio of the film—uncommonly seen in modern productions—also plays a hand in characterizing its unique cinematography.

In the past, both Eggers and Blaschke received heavy praise for their work in the creation of The Witch (2015). Fans of The Witch (2015) would most likely find enjoyment in The Lighthouse for their similarly chilling atmosphere. The set design, spearheaded by Craig Lathrop, added to the bleak and desolate ambience of The Lighthouse’s setting. Seeing the old-aged technology lying around Winslow and Wake’s house truly felt like taking a step back in time. The cramped nature of the island, particularly evident within the lighthouse itself, intensified a feeling of claustrophobia.

Despite being a horror movie, it isn’t particularly scary in the traditional sense. Not in the heart-attack inducing way that a movie about paranormal entities is, or something like Scream (1996) where the tension lies in the frantic chase between a serial killer and his next victim. The threat within The Lighthouse is the mind as it drowns itself in a maelstrom of paranoia, guilt and desperation until the character’s cannot even trust themselves.

It displays this psychological terror through unreliable narrative, often blurring the lines between hatred and love until the viewer is no longer certain what the characters are feeling. Though somewhat unconventional, I think that there is something intensely nightmarish about this idea and The Lighthouse executed it artfully.

This film is an ode to the ingenuity of humanity. It is a cultural mosaic taking inspiration from an abundance of artists; upon seeing it for the first time, I delighted in recognizing elements of Sascha Schneider’s exploration of the relationship between man and God in his painting, Hypnosis, and the tragedy of Prometheus in Hesiod’s Theogany.

Sascha Schneider: Hypnosis (1904) - Wikimedia Commons
Sascha Schneider: Hypnose – Wikimedia Commons

Director Eggers also credits the haunting accounts of Welsh lighthouse keepers in providing a disturbing layer of authenticity to the cinematic experience. I look forward to watching it again and noticing even more symbolism that I missed the first time around.

Available on the Amazon Prime Video streaming service, The Lighthouse gets under your skin with its provocation of the uncomfortable dread of delusion. An ominous spectre in the night, the glow of the lighthouse beckons you closer to its twisted salvation. Until you choose to pick up this movie, there it will sit. Watching, and waiting.

The Lighthouse

Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow/Thomas Howard
Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake
Valeriia Karamän as the Mermaid
Logan Hawkes as Ephraim Winslow

Directed by Robert Eggers

streaming on Amazon Prime