“He believed that there was some enchantment in the light. Went mad, he did”
The ocean is a common recurring motif in the horror genre, so filled with mystery and a whole host of tall tales and mythical creatures lurking within the briny deep. For Robert Eggers, the young upstart New Englander whose first film (The Witch) sought to present an authentic 17th century tale of witchcraft, the sea holds untold wonders. Mermaids, krakens, Elder Gods, all of them hidden in the uncharted waters that cover far more of the planet than land does. When you compound that by dialing back the technology and setting the film in the late 1800s, when even less is known about the sea and superstition rules the day, there’s even more possibility to plumb the depths of a horror genre piece. This is The Lighthouse.
Our frame of reference in The Lighthouse is nearly as narrow as its aspect ratio. There’s a young man, Ephraim Wilson (Robert Pattison), who has come to a remote island on the New England coast to tend to its lighthouse alongside the older, swarthy and rather flatulent Thomas Wake (WIllem Dafoe). Thomas delegates all the menial tasks to his new charge while zealously hoarding access to the light. He claims it’s for Wilson’s own good, as his last assistant was so transfixed by it that it drove him insane. Of course, the best way to make someone want something is to keep him from it, and Wilson soon becomes equally zealous in his need to see things for himself. Throw a nearly apocalyptic storm and more booze than any same person would imbibe, and calling the result a combustible situation would be quite the understatement.
It certainly looks the part. From the release of the first trailer, The Lighthouse felt like it could have been some ancient artifact from the late 1920s that somehow resurfaced nearly a century later. Its aspect ratio, a startling 1.19:1, is even boxier than 4:3 or the vaunted Academy ratio (a positively roomy 1.37) recently used by the likes of Cold War, First Reformed and The Artist. Its black and white cinematography is grim, with Pattinson and Dafoe dirtied and gaunted up something fierce. Even more so than The Witch, The Lighthouse literally feels like a product of its time, enhancing the sense of spectacle in its own unique ways.
Despite his similar approach in utilizing authentic lighting, naturalistic wardrobes and accurate dialogue of the time, there’s a major difference to how Eggers mounted The Lighthouse compared to The Witch. In The Witch, there was never a question what was going on. There was definitely a witch living in the woods and it definitely terrorized the family living on their remote farm. Eggers has no problem showing it to us early in all of its gory detail. There’s metaphorical content to be found in The Witch, of course, but the central antagonist’s existence is never in question. The Lighthouse, on the other hand, is far more slippery. We see things, horrors and fantastical creatures, but it’s never clear what’s actually happening. Are those tentacles real or are they (as they say) a trick of the light? Is the unholy klaxon of the foghorn that sounds in two long bursts at regular intervals throughout the entire film even real? Is it part of the soundtrack? Is it in Pattinson’s head?