THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019) – Arrow Video Limited Edition Blu-Ray

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THE LIGHTHOUSE
Directed by Robert Eggers

Amidst the troubled waters of a bad January, a month in which horror fans had both The Grudge and The Turning come out, The Lighthouse has loomed like a beacon of hope. As a follow-up to Eggers’ mini-masterpiece The Witch, this sophomore movie has much the same burden of high expectations as both Midsommar and The Nightingale did last year. But unlike either of those two, The Lighthouse arguably surpasses what its creator did the first time around. It also consolidates his place as one to watch, making for a shining example of what you can do with the right location and the right actors.

In respective order, those are a mysterious New England island in the 1890s, and the talents of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers tending to a desolate station. The ramshackle structure would be worth at least a money-back request on Air BnB, looking as stark as it is horrific: the worst place for four weeks of intense, back-breaking labour. During which time Pattinson’s secretive Ephraim Winslow does the grunt work of cleaning rooms, maintaining the rotational machinery, pushing wheelbarrows and emptying the piss-pots. No wonder he’s taking to the shed to whack off over the figurine of a mermaid to handle his frustration. While Dafoe’s injured veteran, and pissed of Captain Birdseye look-alike, Tom Wake, attends to the light itself. It’s a job, he’s unwilling to share and holds on to with ferocity. They don’t interact much at first, save for awkward meal times and the odd much-needed drunken catharsis complete with sea-shanties. But as their relationship gets increasingly strained, a badly timed tempest cancels their going home boat. Marooned, with no idea when he can get back, Winslow doubts the intentions of his new senior figure along with his own mental stability. It could be an occupational hazard, given the last assistant went mad. Or it could be Wake gas-lighting him. Perhaps it’s maybe even a mix of the two, and there’s something else about the island.

Like with The Witch, Eggers isn’t a fan of easy answers, and it’s never clear how literally we ought to take what Winslow sees. Often I’m put off when a film embraces ambiguity without furthering either the drama. Thankfully this is not something The Lighthouse does. Like Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers is adept at incorporating weighty symbolism and questions into a plot that’d still function perfectly without them. In this case, he adds Greek myths to his surreal mixture of Moby Dick does The Shining, with the odd dose of Lovecraftian maritime macabre. Admittedly I doubt many will get what’s real or not the first time – I sure as hell didn’t. Yet this isn’t actually a problem since it’s a perspective film designed to be felt as much as followed, and the viewers’ confusion will only match that of the characters. Paranoia, dread and uncertainty are what it’s about after all. Moreover, even when we lose track of what the heck just happened, we are never in any doubt about what it meant for the characters, who treat it as if it did: their emotional journeys are clear. On that point, it helps that both actors are so darn good, fearlessly getting to the core of their parts no matter how pathetic they look.

Pattinson delivers a career-best performance, playing Winslow with a physical and emotional intensity that makes him being cast as a sparkly vampire seem like a fever dream. His unravelling is painful to watch. Whereas we get the impression Defoe is already halfway there, as he goes effortlessly between misanthropic despair and spouting Miltonesque monologues. It helps that their roles are so rich, with each man having layers and layers to work with. They aren’t just battling the elements and each other, but also themselves. Not that the other would know, since they lie about a great deal including their backing stories.  A real game underlines each scene they share together as we wonder which will break and turn on the other first: an anti-buddy movie to remind us Hell can be other people. Not that the alternatives are much better, with the lingering threats of loneliness and insanity being as potent as any killers. Plus there’s the creeping sense of inevitability about that whole thing, which I naively thought the director perfected last time. As such, while scholars may remember it for how skilfully Eggers combines the myths of Proteus (the keeper of knowledge) and Prometheus (who stole fire from the gods), fans will remember it first as an outstanding story.

It’s told well too. The Eggers brothers are obviously sticklers for historical accuracy in terms of the language used, and supposedly based much of the dialogue of old diaries. There’s such a beautiful mix of poetry and profanity to how they talk. Then we come to the aesthetic. Presented in Academy aspect ratio, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Lighthouse looks like a throwback. However, there’s nothing remotely kitsch or gimmicky about it. The cinematography is sublime, giving this noisy, phallic structure that’s taken over their life a foreboding appearance (which makes sense given it’s partly about hypermasculinity). Though it’s not big on gore, the few moments of body horror are cringe-inducing in the best way. The interiors are also exceptional. They are as claustrophobic as the sea is vast, and each grimy set looks meticulously designed to reflect the many period details. You can almost smell the salt and the many bodily substances. These add to a real pressure-cooker atmosphere, and as the clouds and wave surround the island, mimicking their raging tempers and tensions, it makes for an immersive viewing experience. The audio is as good as it gets too. Against the character’s silence, we hear every last scrape, creak or fart (something I hope Eggers added throughout to dismiss the elitist notion he makes “elevated” horror). There’s also the lighthouse’s foghorn, which we hear in the distance long before it even appears. It starts early and hardly ever lets up for the entire duration of the film, interrupting near enough scene to loudly torment the audience and characters alike. Birds call or peck the window, waves pound, and that darn thing just won’t shut up!

As I would expect many of you won’t when your friends, family and loved ones tell you to stop recommending the damn film. It’s probably got a limited run here, so if you can then get along to see it at your local arthouse cinema and sit as far away as possible from anyone else to fully take in the sensory experience. Better yet, wear as few clothes as possible and sit under the aircon so you’re shivering, and tip saltwater over yourself every few minutes (ok, just go during the day this weekend). Let it submerge you as only a great horror can. An early entry for the film of the year – if it’s not on there then 2020 will have to be almost miraculously good – and one I can’t wait to see again. January, to say you saved the best until last is an understatement. I’m glad you found your way.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Lighthouse Arrow Video limited edition extras

Presentation:

  • 4K (2160p) Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible), approved by director Robert Eggers. Typically excellent Arrow transfer – looks and sounds utterly beautiful.

Commentaries:

  • Writer/director Robert Eggers: Eggers is a fascinating director who intricately plans every shot. Here he discusses all aspects: the casting, the costumes, the sets and some of the symbolism. It always impresses me how much research he puts into his movies, and this is probably his masterpiece. You learn a lot of weird details about lighthouse keepers, his savant-like attention to detail and titbits about film like how a donkey’s hee-haw can be used to make the sounds of a water pump.
  • Authors Guy Adams and Alexandra Benedict: These two, a married couple, delve into the treasure trove of rich symbolism and mythology behind the film. Sometimes these sorts of discussions, especially those that relate to ancient mythology, can be a difficult listen that assume a lot of knowledge on the part of the audience. Thankfully they talk about it with enough good humour, and obvious love for the material, that I probably enjoyed listening to them even more than Eggers. I liked their thoughts on the actors, the themes and how difficult it can be working on an Eggers’ movie.

Features:

  • Art of Darkness: Making The Lighthouse – a brand new, in-depth documentary on the film that covers its Edgar Allan Poe origins, all-important casting, the arduous production, the complex themes, and Eggers’ influences. It’s a brilliantly detailed doc featuring new interviews with co-writer/director Robert Eggers, director of photography Jarin Blaschke, production designer Craig Lathrop, costume designer Linda Muir and our authors from above: Guy Adams and Alexandra Benedict. Very interesting talking heads who cover it from a range of angles – a must-watch for fans of the film. I also like that Eggers retains his mystery, leaving the deciphering section to others. (72 minutes)
  • The Lighthouse Next Door: The Consuming House Tale of Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse – a brand new visual essay on the film and its folklore influences by author and critic Kat Ellinger. This is a good reflection of Eggers’ strengths as a director and how he combines elements of folk horror and American Gothic. It’s a well-argued, well-researched analysis that positions the movie in both traditions. Kat clearly knows her stuff about cinematic history and the rich heritage behind The Lighthouse. Good, accessible and educational. (20 minutes)
  • The Lighthouse: A Dark & Stormy Tale – a three-part documentary on the making of the film. For the viewer who wants to know even more about the movie. There’s a lot about the writing process, the musicality of the dialogue, the shoot, working with animals and the significance of light. Dafoe and Pattinson both feature, to reflect on their characters and the final film, along with Eggers and other crew members. (38 minutes)
  • Deleted scenes: Two additional scenes presented without finished music or sound. The first is more of a mood piece than anything else – more of the daily grind at the lighthouse. The second is similar, though gives us a bit of extra drunk humour. Either could have slotted in nicely. (3 minutes)
  • 2 theatrical trailers
  • Image gallery: Exactly what it sounds like – various stills from the film that reminds us how good the shot composition is.

Limited Edition Contents (note that I have not seen these)

  • Limited edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jeffrey Alan Love
  • Limited edition 60-page perfect bound book featuring new writing on the film by Simon Abrams, Wickham Clayton, Martyn Conterio and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
  • Fold-out double-sided poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jeffrey Alan Love
  • Six double-sided collector’s postcards
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About david.s.smith 459 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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