When you’re a horror fan for long enough, you tend to get rather specific about the subgenres that catch your interest. For example, you’d be amazed how many movies “a person slowly losing their grip on reality while buried under about six different metaphors, and also it’s kind of gay” covers. The Lighthouse, for example.
Marketed by a series of trailers where Robert Pattinson stares grimly at a seagull and Willem Dafoe does his Green Goblin voice by way of Quint from Jaws, the movie comes from the same director as 2015’s The VVitch. Before you ask: yes, this is also a slow burn historical piece about humans stranded in the wilderness where the supernatural elements are only debatably real until nearly the end of the film. Robert Eggers is building himself a bit of a brand, it seems.
But while the movie is well-shot and directed, with a particular richness captured by the 35mm film on which it was shot, this is a film with two stars. The first is its central performers. Jokes aside, this kind of script is inevitably an actors’ showcase, and Pattinson in particular delivers: even when doing the requisite bits of sad repressed wanking required by a certain brand of prestige horror, he sells his character Winslow’s slow emotional dissolution as the house around them slowly crumbles under the battering storms outside. Winslow is, of course, haunted by a dark secret.
It’s a metaphor.
All that bottled rage and guilt pings gloriously off Dafoe’s borderline parodic performance as a sea captain of debatable existence. Their scenes together, simmering with homoeroticism sublimated as violence and peppered with fart jokes, become the high points between cyclical scenes of stormy weather and the numbing repetitive roar of the job. The script trains the audience into Pattinson’s point of view, setting them up to anticipate the two-person scenes as an escape until they instead become powder kegs for Winslow’s emotional instability.
Those scenes are also relative shelters from the film’s second star: its sound mixing. Clearly made with a theatrical experience in mind, the film all but recreates the experience of living with audio processing issues. The blaring horn of the lighthouse and the clank of its machinery are overwhelming and constant, fighting at equal volume with the dialogue and turning into a deliberate slurry over the course of the film. Words become as meaningless and mechanistic as the other constant sounds, grinding Winslow and the audience down into a mechanistic state that revolves around that damn lighthouse, the visuals becoming stranger and stranger as the sound becomes one unified and distressing bludgeon.
By the end, the script is almost besides the point, with few surprises to anyone who has seen a film and a final shot that’s impressively composed but also sort of adorably screams “we worked backward from here.” Instead, it’s an exercise in using the “secondary” elements of moviemaking – the sound, the visual claustrophobia, the largely diegetic lighting – to push the viewer into the same emotional journey as its lead. And while this movie will likely fall into the great genre discourse, given that it’s a prestige film with respected actors and few traditional “scares,” that experiment in emotional manipulation definitely puts it squarely in the books of good horror.