Set on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, The Lighthouse is a chimeric film that evokes spectres of mythology and folklore, before muddling it all into a performance that is Shakespeare meets Moby Dick and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Shot in black-and-white film, director and masterful storyteller Robert Eggers manages to create a haunting fever dream of a psychological horror movie.
Four years ago, Eggers broke onto the screen with his debut feature, arthouse style horror movie The Witch. This is a period piece set in 1630 that takes an omnipresent look at a puritan family who have been ostracized from their fellow settlers due to their religious interpretations. They are banished from the colony and travel into the wild to build a settlement on their own.
As the movie progresses, we see this family begin to unravel at the edge of the New England woods after their newborn baby disappears in the care of the oldest child, a young woman named Thomasin.
Of course, when it’s a movie set in Massachusetts in the mid 1600s, focusing on a strong-willed adolescent girl and her fervently religious family, you can safely assume that she will be accused of witchcraft.
While there are scenes that show supernatural encounters in the woods and goat sheds, the most terrifying aspect of the film is the violent and chaotic self-destruction of an isolated family at the mercy of nature.
In his sophomore film, The Lighthouse, Eggers once again explores how isolation and unyielding nature can lead to our spiralling descent into madness — with or without a little supernatural help.
The movie opens with the arrival of Robert Pattinson’s character, Ephraim Winslow, on the rocky shores of a New England lighthouse. The light’s caretaker, a gruff older man named Thomas Wake — played by the masterful Willem Dafoe — welcomes the young man with suspicion.
The Lighthouse is haunting and hallucinatory with two unreliable narrators at the helm, and it is a bit more ambiguous than its sister film, The Witch. We are at the mercy of Winslow’s perception of reality and it begins to erode rapidly. He is tormented by a one-eyed seagull, tempted by a monstrous mermaid and manipulated by his older counterpart.
Again, much like The Witch, the two men — isolated and battered by storms — begin their rapid descent into mutual destruction.
Eggers borrows heavily from Greek mythology and Maritime folklore and places it all in a backdrop that is reminiscent of early German expressionist horror films, giving The Lighthouse its unnerving and insidious tone.
But the story that inspired Eggers most of all is an allegedly true tale from 1801. Off the coast of Wales, one can find The Smalls Lighthouse, which was the site of some horrific events.
Thomas Griffith and Thomas Howell were two lighthouse keepers with a strong dislike for each other. When one Thomas died of natural causes, the other Thomas feared he would be accused of murder if the man’s body just disappeared into the waves — so he built him a coffin and lashed it to the railings of the lighthouse.
Some versions of the story have the coffin breaking apart in a storm, leaving the exposed body of the unfortunate Thomas to wave in the wind. Eventually, after months alone on the rock with the body of his colleague, a boat comes to pick up the two men. But it’s obvious that both the living and the dead Thomas were never the same after the incident.
Eggers uses this desperation and isolation as a framework for the men in his film. What happens when two people are left isolated at the mercy of the elements on a rock in the middle of the ocean?
The viewer is left to witness some masterful gaslighting from Dafoe and experience the haunting hallucinatory events that begin to unravel Pattinson’s character. This is a movie that masterfully explores identity, our tumultuous relationship with people and nature and just how tenuous our grip on reality may be.
Erin Matthews/ Opinions Editor