Amidst an eerie fog and the unrelenting moan of a foghorn, two men arrive at an island to fulfil a lonely month-long shift of tending the lighthouse. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is grizzled, autocratic, and demanding – an experienced keeper with an unholy devotion to the lighthouse lamp. His second-in-command is Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a young timber labourer from Canada, running from his past and seeking a well-paying job. Despite their occasional grievances, the men survive the month with only the others’ company, the torrential rain, and the howling wind. But Winslow is eagre to leave, already unsettled by the mysteries of the island. However, when the ship sent to relieve them fails to show due to a storm, the two men quickly spiral into madness and suspicion, heavy drinking and drunken brawls, singing sea shanties by candlelight and divulging secrets that are best left untold. All the while, the pallid light atop the lighthouse calls to Winslow, and he must know why Thomas guards the lamp room with suspect vigour.
The Lighthouse is directed and produced by Robert Eggers (The Witch), and co-written alongside brother Max Eggers. Both Pattinson and Dafoe are well cast, and give formidable performances.
The Lighthouse is a psychological horror film, with evocative cinematography and a deeply corrupt tale. The film is loosely based on the true story of the ‘Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy’ of 1801, in which two Welsh lighthouse keepers were stranded on an island when their ship failed to show due to a storm and relieve them. Both named Thomas, one man is said to have gone mad when the other man died sometime into their isolation.
The film echoes the myth of Prometheus, the symbol of human striving for light, knowledge and salvation that ends in punishment. Winslow’s desire for the light grows ever more intense, as Thomas denies him access.
The film, set in 1890, is shot entirely on 35mm black and white Double-X film, augmented with vintage lenses that date back to as early as 1918. The Lighthouse is a masterpiece of cinematography. Coldly beautiful, it uses the technology to its limits to create haunting shots that capture the essence of early cinema and speak to the age of early black and white horror films. It’s the sordid lovechild of Poe and Lovecraft in a 1.19:1 ratio.
The Lighthouse is an immensely disturbing film, and by far the most frightening film I’ve seen in a long time. It is truly unhinged and unhinging, unsettling at its core, unhuman yet deeply human, seeking to explore the depraved depths of human endeavour and psyche.
There is never a dull moment, never an expected twist, never the stench of a predictable jump scare around the corner. There is only horror imagery done right, and done powerfully, by two brilliant actors colliding in a ball of manic energy.
I rate this film 9/10.