Robert Eggers delivered a memorable frightfest when he debuted The Witch in 2015, introducing Black Phillip into our collective consciousness. His follow-up is another period horror film, sans demonic goats this time around, but one still brewing with other mysterious entities: blind seagulls, screaming mermaids, tentacled krakens, and a lighthouse beacon that dazzles (and unravels) all who feast their eyes upon it. And, unlike The Witch, The Lighthouse’s horror is a smattering of mindfucks that make less and less sense as they go on—no doubt done to simulate Robert Pattinson’s descent into complete madness as his character is overwhelmed by the claustrophobic confines of sharing living quarters with a farting, West Country English-speaking Willem Dafoe (no, really).
With patience and a bit of probing around the white-eyed madness that engulfs the film’s structure, one can treat The Lighthouse in one of two ways: as a frightening examination of interpersonal relations in dangerous flux, wherein egos, traumas, sex drives and ambitions clash to the point of rupture when isolated from society at large, or as a darkly comic theatre piece (think Albee, Pinter or even Beckett) which uses language and physicality to explore the potentialities inherent in having two men size each other up and upend the natural hierarchies between them, all while in a solitary confinement of sorts. It really depends on which aspects of the film stick out most for you, since Eggers and his actors deliver enough ambiguity to make either reading plausible.
For me, the comic elements were the most surprising, especially since there was virtually nothing funny about The Witch. Here, however, there is something of Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque in the way things transpire: a free revelry in what is base, taboo and profane, right down to the coded foreplay within Pattinson and Dafoe’s later interactions. My initial reaction was to describe it as “kinky,” and I still stand by this assertion. The sexually frustrated characters air out their desires verbally; Pattinson’s character masturbates furiously to fantasies of mermaids; both Pattinson and Dafoe’s character share the same name of Thomas, tying up their unspoken desires to a shared sense of identity. A lot of this in done in absurd keys, so that ultimately the humour came to drown out the abject horror—and that’s fine by me.
Others will be less pleased by the naughtiness, and I can understand why. Visually, everything about this, from the austere 1.19:1 boxed aspect ratio and grainy 35 mm black and white film, portends terror. It is a testament to Eggers’ talents that he can subvert expectations so nimbly that it doesn’t come off too incongruously. Don’t get me wrong, though: The Lighthouse is a chilling and nasty tale first and foremost, sure to raise a nightmare or two. The fact that there is room for humour—and that it’s done so well—is an added layer of pleasure to buoy this salty and sadistic sea yarn into the annals of cult stardom before long.
The Lighthouse had its North American premiere at TIFF in the Special Presentations programme on September 7, 2019.