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With: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman
Written by: Max Eggers, Robert Eggers
Directed by: Robert Eggers
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language
Running Time: 109
Date: 10/18/2019

The Lighthouse (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Light' and Darkness

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Robert Eggers's The Lighthouse is a genuine black-and-white horror movie, though viewers should not expect anything as charmingly spooky as Tod Browning's Dracula, James Whale's Frankenstein, or Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

No, The Lighthouse is as downright unsettling, as totally disturbing, as any black-and-white nightmare since David Lynch's Eraserhead.

It's the kind of movie that inspires three reactions. The first is a wish to un-see what you have just seen. Next will be a vow to never see it again. And, finally, somewhere down the line, a weird urge to break that vow.

The setup is as simple as can be, though it's so internalized that even these few details can be refuted: it's somewhere in the 1890s, and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a man with a shady past, reports for work as an assistant lighthouse keeper.

His new boss is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) a salty old seaman who can recite ancient sea poems at will. It's a ferocious, glinty-eyed performance that may warrant studying in acting classes.

It begins with boots on creaking floorboards, drippy ceilings, and wind bashing against the salt-water-licked living quarters.

Wake works the newcomer mercilessly during the day and in the evenings plies him with drink. But weirdly, the older man keeps the actual top-floor beacon locked up tight and will not allow Winslow to take a shift up there.

Soon Winslow meets a vindictive and persistent seagull, promising bad omens. Nightmarish visions of things like writhing tentacles and a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman, the only other person in the cast) appear.

And then things get really dark.

Like his contemporary horror masters Jordan Peele (Us), Ari Aster (Midsommar), and Jennifer Kent (The Nightingale), Eggers — whose last movie was The Witch — seems to have shattered the merest hint of a sophomore slump. Perhaps these directors were born with entire haunted houses full of ideas to draw upon.

The Lighthouse, as with The Witch, is so fully steeped in the past that it almost feels as if Eggers time-travels with a camera.

Whereas many horror movies center around some recent wrongdoing, Eggers's technique suggests a deeper, more ancient evil, one that has always existed, whether in the universe or in the hearts of flawed humans. His films are closer to Cthulhu than to Cujo.

To go further, in addition to the black-and-white, which is more constraining and sinister than it is beautiful, Eggers has employed a narrow aspect ratio, closer to a square than a rectangle, similar to the shape used in Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, and David Lowery's A Ghost Story, and to movies made in the earliest days of cinema.

It's almost like being inside someone's head. Even the exterior shots, wherein Winslow performs lonely, demeaning tasks, take place against a gray curtain of sky and cold rocks. These hardly provide any kind of open air relief.

Then, stuck inside while a never-ending storm hammers at their door during the movie's second half, the pungent, wretched horrors, both mental and physical, threaten to ooze through the narrow edges of the picture.

Eggers seems to suggest that isolation, mixed with a little imagination and growing obsession, is a monster capable of breaking the strongest of us. And it's not too much of a stretch to bring that thought up to date, with all of us so connected, but at the same time so alone behind our glowing screens.

In a sense, we're all our own individual lighthouse keepers.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray release (of an A24 film) befits one of 2019's most impressive feats of cinematography and sound; it's essential for horror fans that can stomach very strong stuff. Bonuses include a digital copy, a commentary track by writer/director Eggers, a three-part behind-the-scenes featurette (about 37 minutes), and deleted scenes (about 5 minutes' worth).

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