Robert Eggers is one of the new filmmakers (along with Ari Aster) on the forefront of gothic horror. In his striking first feature “The Witch,” Eggers illustrated a helpless Puritan family at odds with a curse. The film was not only a solid thriller but also a commentary on fanaticism.
In his latest “The Lighthouse,” Eggers takes a page from H.P. Lovecraft and Poe. The film is photographed in stark black and white and echoes “Carnival of Souls,” and Polanski’s “Cul-de-sac,” as well as “The Shining.” The film has the tense slow build that audiences have come to expect. Although the story is not as rhythmic or as tightly controlled as “The Witch,” it offers a fitting companion to the debut.
Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is sent to a desolate New England island circa 1890 alongside a craggy sea veteran Thomas (Willem Dafoe) to maintain a rusting lighthouse. It is cold, gray and rainy with nothing around but whining gulls.
Straightaway, things get off on the wrong boot when Winslow refrains from toasting a drink with Thomas. Thomas winces as if he is biting on a nail. Events get worse when Winslow discovers that his cot might be stuffed with human hair along with an alien looking figurine of a mermaid. Winslow cannot sleep, but the statuette makes him horny.
During the day, gulls peck at him with seemingly deliberate intent. These scenes are reminiscent of the work of writer Patrick Suskind, specifically “The Pigeon.” Losing his temper, Winslow tells Thomas of his wish to kill one. The older man is petrified at the thought. This is the worst sin imaginable; the gulls embody the souls of sailors long deceased.
One day, a one-eyed bird lunges at him with great menace. Winslow grabs the large sea bird by the neck and beats it to a bloody pulp. That night Winslow and Thomas partake in a satisfying dinner, laughing in good cheer.
Then suddenly the wind changes. A storm is imminent. Winslow was scheduled to end his stint at the island. Now the young man can’t leave.
The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is wondrous as are the performances by Pattinson and Dafoe. Pattinson in particular (always a risk taker) is especially daring with dancing that rivals Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in manic intensity.
Add to this a haunting scene of a voluptuous mermaid that recalls the Pre-Raphaelites, along with some David Cronenberg sea creatures and the audience has a winner with a climax that doesn’t quit. A single eye of light becomes terrifying, albeit of the midnight movie variety.
Some Grand Guignol by the sea is the order of the day, but the real star of “The Lighthouse” is the photography and sound design depicting sheets of slashing rain, mud and shit, along with the screech of an orgiastic mermaid that becomes the vindictive call of a gull intent on boorish Winslow’s destruction.
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