There was always something cinematic about WW Gibson’s poem Flannan Isle, which was based on supposedly true events. The three man crew of a remote lighthouse, mysteriously vanished, a Marie Celeste on dry land. The sight of three birds in the distance, suggesting some supernatural force at work; it’s an ancient touch-stone that’s simply begging for a fully-developed narrative. That didn’t happen in 2019’s risible The Vanishing/Keepers, in which Gerry Butler chewed his beard to no effect in a dull story of rivalry and mercury poisoning. As his follow-up to The Witch, writer/director Robert Eggers takes a far more daring and cinematic approach that mixes semen and sea-monsters to both comic and alarming effect.
Shot in black-and-white, and with set-ups that recall early silent and sound films, The Lighthouse might seem like a pastiche, but it plays out without a wink to the audience. Wickie Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is joined by newbie Epharim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) on the remote lighthouse he maintains; the young man doesn’t share his penchant for booze and sea-shanties, but the two of them make a decent fist of holding things together. Winslow seems obsessed with fingering a figurine of a mermaid that he discovers inside the stuffing of his mattress, and the younger man’s sexual desires seem to set him up as a target for the older man’s derision.
The Witch seemed to take an eternity to get to a supernatural punch-line; The Lighthouse is more subtle in the mechanism by which it delivers chills, mainly through the dreams and hallucinations of the two men. The games are multi-layered; at times, Pattinson and Dafoe are seen doing actors exercises together, and Eggers seems to be playing on audiences awareness of the stars and the type of genre film he’s subverting. This is horror here, but it’s something more insidous than just jump-scares.
The Lighthouse is a cheeky provocation, cleverly made and making great use of two deservedly popular actors. Pattison creates something other-worldly from Winslow, while Dafoe’s monolithic monologues are something to behold in the style of Melville’s Moby Dick. The Lighthouse will have some frustrated customers; this isn’t the unveiling of a new horror talent as it is a black-comedy merchant, but Eggers’s film has a playfulness that makes it a must-see, even if there’s certain images you’ll be keen to unsee afterwards.