From the opening shot, The Lighthouse is an exercise in psychological torment. This is hardly a detriment to the film. It’s an unpleasant experience, but this is by design. In a superb example of both filmmaking and storytelling, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson’s new film employs numerous tricks of the trade to torture its audience as much as possible, thereby creating a constant feeling of dread.
Slow burn horror is perhaps horror’s most difficult genre, but it has created many of the genre’s most noteworthy classics, from the original The Haunting to John Carpenter’s Halloween, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The Lighthouse employs many of the tricks employed by those films, while also using a few of its own.
The moment the lights when down and the film started rolling, I felt a great sense of discomfort. This is due to how the film is photographed. In spite of being projected onto a widescreen, The Lighthouse is actually filmed in 1.33 aspect ratio. This immediately creates a feeling of confinement which plagues the rest of the film.
The film makes superb use of its limited aspect ratio. Even outdoor scenes feel confined as the shot never lets us admire the landscape. This is effective is the film is primarily told from the point of view of Robert Pattinson’s character of Winslow. Winslow doesn’t want to be in this place right from the start. Due to the way the film is photographed, we don’t either. The frame itself is a trap.
In its quest to make the viewer as uncomfortable as possible, the film immediately sets up tension between Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake and Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow. In one of their earliest scenes, Wake strikes Winslow after the latter mocks his superstitious beliefs. This scene puts a barrier up between the two, and it only widens as the film progresses. The film opens their relationship with an act of physical violence. Doing that puts us on edge. If their relationship starts with a slap, how much worse can it get?
In the film’s earlier scenes, we follow the reluctant Winslow as he goes about chores on the island. The scenes are an exercise in tedium, capturing the monotony and frustration experienced by the character. A cart of coal tips over, an attempt to drink water is interrupted by a dead seagull and so forth. Anything and everything that can go wrong, does. The repetition of these tasks is a key element in its torment of the viewer, made all the stronger by showing the gradual breakdown of Winslow’s routine.
In building frustration in Winslow, the film also builds that same frustration in the viewer. By design, the film keeps the character, and viewer from experiencing any real catharsis. In one darkly comical scene, Pattinson’s character attempts to empty a bucket of filth into the sea, only for the wind to blow it in his face. He starts to scream, but the film cuts away just as he begins. In cutting away, we don’t see him get even a small release. By extension, neither do we.
Another moment comes in the form of an angry rant from Wake. After believing Winslow insulted his cooking, Wake launches into a several minute long tirade, all told masterfully in a single shot. Usually holding on a single shot is detrimental to a film, but in this case, it puts is firmly in Winslow’s shoes. We’re trapped in the room with a man who may well be losing his mind, and we’re not allowed to leave until the rant ends. In this case, the lack of a cut, creates the feeling of entrapment.
As with most examples of slow burn horror, it takes time to get to the overtly spooky stuff. More overt examples of horror are subtle at first. Winslow glimpses Wake in the lighthouse surrounded by what appear to be tentacles. At first, we think it may be nothing, but as in other slow-burn horror films, the subtle things only get more prevalent.
In both The Shining and the original 60s version of The Haunting, much of the fear evoked wasn’t so much from the idea that something supernatural was going on, but wondering how much was supernatural and how much was going on in the head of the lead character.
Winslow begins seeing increasingly strange things. A mermaid caught in a net on the surf, tentacle reaching out of the sea in search of victims, and his very employer seems to be becoming more and more of a monster. Not only does this drive a further rift between the pair, but it makes us feel more uncomfortable. If the things we’re witnessing are real, then the fear is obvious. If it’s not real, then we don’t trust the main character.
This is perhaps best displayed in one of the film’s most pivotal scenes. When Winslow attempts to escape the island, Wake loses his mind and attacks him with an axe. When the scene ends and no blood has been spilled, Wake’s demeanor changes, and he claims it was Winslow who attacked him. By scenes end, we’re not sure who it telling the truth.
From here, the film descends into chaos. One minute, the two characters are fine, the next they’re at each other’s throats. The next, supernatural horrors are threatening the men. In the blink of an eye, their greatest threat is the other man. It gets to the point that we’re not sure who, or what we’re supposed to be afraid of. In the end, we’re afraid of everything. We’re afraid of the ocean, of the place, and most of all, of the two lead characters.
The Lighthouse is not for everyone, and may not reach as wide an audience as other slow-burn horror movies like Halloween or The Shining. It would be a mistake to say the film doesn’t excel in the atmosphere. The Lighthouse isn’t the kind of horror film that makes you scream, but it does make you squirm. If you want to leave the theatre, it may be because the movie does its job that well.
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