“The Lighthouse” provides psychological horror



“The Lighthouse” generates a sense of horror in the audience with its black and white imagery, unconventional cinematography and beautifully written script.

A body lies in the moonlight, motionless, drowned in the sea. Underwater, a woman comes into focus; her eyes are open, and she is lovely. As the camera pans downwards, more details appear: scales, a fish’s tail. The mermaid’s face contorts hideously. She opens her mouth and begins to scream––a jarring, blood-curdling wail.

“The Lighthouse” is simultaneously a beautiful and terrifying story. It is brilliantly written and directed; as the film progresses, the audience feels like they, too, are spiralling into insanity alongside the main characters.

The movie follows Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), an elderly lighthouse keeper and his subordinate, a young man named Ephriam Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who is fleeing from a mysterious past. Winslow and Wake are sent to a remote island to serve a four-week shift at the lighthouse there.

When relief fails to arrive at the end of the month, the two men are stranded indefinitely on the inhospitable terrain while a violent storm rages around them. As time passes, Winslow and Wake become overly reliant on alcohol, act increasingly violently, and begin to lose their grips on reality.

“The Lighthouse” is cinematographically unconventional in the sense that its aspect ratio is much narrower than most modern movies. The lack of horizontal space parallels the small, cramped and inhospitable island. It elegantly and subtly emphasizes the fact that Winslow and Wake have no privacy, no comfort and nowhere to go. As a result, members of the audience feel an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, like they too are trapped in the middle of the ocean.

Perhaps more strikingly, the film is shot entirely without color. This decision makes the jagged rocks seem sharper and more dangerous; blood shines wetly, ominously dark; and the lighthouse’s beacon is blindingly bright as it roves across the rough sea. The characters’ faces are sunken in shadows, so that Wake and Winslow seem almost like living skulls. The effect is dramatic, haunting, gorgeous.

Throughout “The Lighthouse”, director Robert Eggers blurs the line between fiction and reality, giving the film a hallucinogenic and dreamlike effect. Wake’s dedication to the lighthouse’s beacon borders on obsession, raising the question if there is a supernatural force on the island. He explains how Winslow is a replacement for his former assistant, who believed there was an “enchantment in the light” before going insane. Wake guards the beacon fervently; he refuses to let Winslow near it, and he writes his observations in a diary, which he keeps under lock and key. In one memorable shot, Winslow sees Wake framed by the light, almost like a religious figure.

Twice, Winslow thinks he sees a mermaid as he is walking along the beach. The first time, he jolts awake, safely in his bed as the mermaid shrieks. The second time, Winslow never wakes up. There is no concrete evidence that the scene takes place in his imagination.

Time, too, is unpredictable. Eggers uses repetition to inspire a sense of déjà vu in the viewer. For instance, every dinner scene is nearly identical: Winslow and Wake sit opposite each other at a dimly lit table, with a single lantern and a bottle of alcohol in between them. In the background, a foghorn plays once every few minutes throughout the movie.

Multiple times, Winslow walks up the winding staircase of the lighthouse towards the beacon at the top, only to have the grate slammed in his face. The seagulls never stop crying, and the waves never stop pounding onto the rocks. Since there is little change, it’s remarkably difficult to know how much time has passed. It’s also hard to know what has––and hasn’t––really happened.

The viewer and the main characters share the same struggle. Wake asks, “How long have we been on this island? Five weeks? Two days? Where are we?” He continues: “I’m probably a figment of your imagination. This rock is probably a figment of your imagination.”

“The Lighthouse” raises difficult questions and does not shy away from violence or mental instability. The end result is a film that is wonderfully difficult to watch. It plays tricks with the imagination. When moviegoers were filing out of the dark theater into the brightness of the lobby, I had a difficult time imagining my return to my normal daily routine. The movie had suddenly and powerfully changed my perception of the world.

In equal parts morbid and humorous, violent and insightful, realistic and absurd, “The Lighthouse” truly makes for an unforgettable experience.