Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
In the late 1800’s on a remote New England island, two USLS employees begin their post as lighthouse keepers for a four-week tour. It’s a straightforward assignment: maintain the facility and keep the light burning. Nothing remarkable. Standard operating procedure.
But when a violent, almost ungodly storm sweeps the island, cuts off supply lines and threatens to pummel their small tower into strewn bricks their post becomes a living nightmare. Now both must try to survive nature’s wrath, being stranded, each other’s fraying nerves and a creeping descent into madness.
Then again, it’s nothing a little alcohol abuse couldn’t remedy.
My mother has a thing for lighthouses. More like a festish really.
Those sturdy, concrete, somewhat phallic sentinels that dot the coastlines. Once the vanguard of maritime safety, now a quaint reminder of a simpler time before radar and GPS. These edifices still have their uses. Landmarks for one, especially considering small craft that may not have a LORAN unit. These days lighthouse beacons serve better as a landmark on the roads than on the shoals. However they are still the idea backup source when modern naval tech fails. Heck, I even learned that 75% of all lighthouses in America are still fully functional navigational aids, kind of like hard copy to go with online purchase. And as I can fondly recall from youth that light was the summertime version of “be home before the street lights come on.” As soon as you could see that beacon spinning, get yer ass home.
I spent many summers as a kid on the Fire Island National Seashore. My grandparents had a summer place there, and there was the iconic Fire Island Light at the far eastern tip of the shoreline. Here’s some history: the tower is 160-plus feet tall and was completed 1858. Pre-Civil War, it was daring feat in concrete. The light’s the second tallest one in New York, and its beacon can cast up to over 20 nautical miles out to sea. The light did crap out in the early 70s, and the tower fell into disrepair. Later, in the mid-80s, the Coast Guard returned the Fire Island Lighthouse to an active navigation aid. Dusted it off, fresh coat of paint and buffed its lenses clean. I recall as a kid the near incessant hum of distant sandblasting at the workers stripped the tower down to bare brick in or to repoint the thing as well as give it said new, high tech coat of paint. Even later in the 2000s the light became a private aid to navigation, a self-sustaining entity from the local historic society. It continues to be on the nautical charts to this day, despite being practically obsolete.
Kinda intersting, huh? Was to my Moms. I don’t sweat other people face to face for opinions on whatever subject RIORI has gotten messed up into week upon week. Apart from recommendations from friends who still don’t understand The Standard (EG: “Yes! The Phantom Menace was lame! Wrong decade! Who are you anyway? Why are you in my freezer? Hand me that popsicle!”). I fly blind. Besides, it’s easier for me to have another “do the research” rather than me scouring the IMDb and its sister sites all weekend long. So I this time out I got either clever or lazy and consulted the mother about her pet interest. Got more than I wished for. Um, you did read the above paragraph, right?
I think that, which may hint at the aforementioned “simpler times,” is what my mother’s infatuation with lighthouses are all about. Like me when I was a kid, she spent her summers on Fire Island with her folks. This was back in the 50s. Then the island was nothing more than a big sandbar; precious little vegetation, just scrub, dune grass and a few stunted pines. At night the twirling beacon lit up the entire bay. No trees mean it cast its light up and down the island every minute or so. The way my mother described it, it sounded like God’s flashlight, inescapable and demanding awe. And also like it came to be with me, you better be home before you can see the beam.
Some more history, according to Moms: back in the 60s the Fire Island National Seashore was founded and set about overhauling the landscape, planting trees. They offered up shade and shelter belts from storms and their root systems did fine job of holding the sandbar together. Due to the new canopy, the almighty Fire Island Light did not lord over island like it used to what with all that fresh canopy. It was also the rise of radar, so ships really didn’t need those huge beacons to navigate at night anymore. The rest is history.
My mother didn’t just spend summers on Fire Island however. From kid to young adult she visited many beaches. She went to camp on Cape Cod, and there were lighthouses. Her in-laws had a summer place on the coast of Maine, and there were lighthouses. She visited the Outer Banks, learned of his maritime history and…you get me. Mom found lighthouses as a touchstone for fond childhood memories: summer camp, swimming at the beach, fresh lobster from Maine (until she discovered she had a shellfish allergy, the hard way). She was—is—an amateur scholar of maritime history and told me how old yet tricky lighthouse technology was and how far back it went in the US, how vital they were for navigation safety back in day. One of little buts of trivia that the one and only George Washington commissioned New York’s first lighthouse at Montauk Point all the way back in 1792. That is some history for a now quaint, obsolete, concrete colonial LORAN unit. But hey, if our first Prez said the Montauk Light was important to national safety are you gonna argue?
Moms brought up one more thing about those old lighthouses: nothing was automatic. No electricity. No running water. No GrubHub. Gotta keep the coals burning to keep the beacon lit. Gotta chip ice off the lenses, lest some poor ship gets blinded and runs aground…or worse. The keepers needed to maintain potable water and sustenance through the lean months, rationing if needs be. Backbreaking, often scary work. There were always storms brewing, and you can’t just call in sick. And there’s always having to sleep light.
The life of a lighthouse keeper was a solitary one, she said. Lonely and miles away from civilization. Always on the edge of the coast. Can you imagine?
“Must’ve been an isolated life,” I nodded assent.
She agreed. Isolation. But who’d want such miserable, dangerous work? What were the benefits, if any?
She wasn’t able to offer up a satisfactory answer, save maybe some people just wanted the solitude.
Wanted? Or needed?
The New England coast, circa 1890.
Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) has tired of his years as a lumberjack. In an effort to support himself between jobs on his traveling North, Winslow joins America’s Lighthouse Service for some swift money. It’ll be a temporary job, to be sure. Four weeks tending a lighthouse on some tiny islet to get some money in his wallet and a change of perspective. It seemed simple enough, but that’s how trouble always starts.
Ephraim’s boss, old salt Tom Wake (Dafoe) doesn’t take kindly to landlubbers who just want a fast buck against ships running aground. He is gruff, rude, often drunk and works Ephraim like a pack mule. Wake claims he can’t do much hard labor because of his bum leg, but Winslow believes the old man just likes to bully him. Wake is a seasoned wickie and the lighthouse his wife and the rock it rests upon his brood and needs a young, strong back to keep the home fires burning. It’s an important title being a lighthouse keeper over these treacherous waters. Of course, no one accepts that until things go wrong. Winslow is slow to understand that, even within a month’s tour on their gull splattered rock. Is the pay worth it?
It doesn’t take very long for Winslow to sense something is not right with Wake’s wife and her flock. One evening while doing another chore in an endless parade of them he glances up that shining beacon. He swears he can see Wake, stripped of his clothes and sunning himself against the glare. Winslow is alarmed but shrugs it off as another of the old man’s weird drunken behaviors. He stows the thought away. Then things really begin getting strange.
He can hear forbidden acts through the catwalk that Ephraim is not permitted to see. The gulls scatter and attack him as if with a vendetta. He could swear he saw a mermaid on the shoals and later tentacles slithering across the lenses. Winslow starts to doubt his own sanity, and superstitious Wake offers him no quarter. Save a few snorts of rotgut to clear the head and ease the drudgery.
Something bizarre—perhaps supernatural—is crawling into Winslow’s simple life. And he wants to have a simple one, to be sure, however Winslow should best acquaint himself with that old New England saw:
“The good seaman weathers the storm he cannot avoid, and avoids the storm he cannot weather.”
I’m not much for horror films. I like terror films. Perhaps I have brought this up before, but there is a major difference. Sit tight.
Won’t lie to you, Lighthouse was creepy and definitely not for the weak-willed or squeamish. Not a lot of violence, just blink and you’ll miss it, but suffocating with metaphor. This is not some eye-opening, mouth agog holeeey sh*t kind of terror. It’s the kind that sticks to your brain like glue, leaving you wondering what the hell did you cough up 12 bucks to see, boy-howdy terror. Your mind ablaze with images that cannot be cut away since you spend days afterwards obsessing over What did I just watch? No fear, you’ll have no trouble answering that upfront. More on that later.
The Lighthouse was very engaging, and drew you right into Ephraim’s world. Just keep paying attention. Things come fast and furious. It was also a very literate movie, inspired by gothic horror and Jamesian pragmatism turned on its ear. The belief that words and thoughts are tools and instruments for prediction, problem solving, and action are perverted by Max Eggers’ script. The scenarist—the director’s brother, BTW—admitted he was inspired by one of Poe’s fragments “The Light-House,” as well as borrowing thematic ideas by Carl Jung (renown for his interpretations of dreams and man’s symbols). the The final product was nothing like the story—that and there were countless production stalls, never a good thing—and got morphed into a “haunted house” period piece. Makes sense. The movie is a period piece inasmuch as we know that the setting was in New England in the late 1800s, as well as dismantling the mechanics of what isolation does to one’s sanity. Right?
Okay, but it was inspired by Poe’s works? Not exactly.
All right, then The Lighthouse was a “literary” horror steeped in metaphor? Getting warmer.
I found The Lighthouse to be a hybrid terror tale by way of, yes, Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. More specifically “The Black Cat” meets “The Tell-Tale Heart” meets “William Wilson” meets “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.” Right, straight on the nose but apt all the same. Now let’s turn our textbooks to page…
If you’ve ever read these works you know what I mean. If not, here’s the Cliffs Notes: The first is about a guy who almost gets away with murder, the second is about how insidious madness can be, the third is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde cautionary tale and the fourth is about eternal guilt and penance. “An albatross around your neck,” right? Right. All four tales got pillaged to construct the plot of Lighthouse. Not sure if Max meant that, but it was a deft turn of a pen or maybe just cryptomnesia. Either way, he made it work and with a minimum of shoehorning. Not just to scare the bleep out of you but also create a keen amalgam into an clever—if not overdone and bombastic—allegory. Lighthouse is meditation on guilt, grief and retribution. The stuff I mentioned earlier that is a mental wad of spent chewing gum on the underside of your cranial school desk.
So why is The Lighthouse and terror film but not horror?
There is a big diff’ between horror and terror. Horror is offensive, gaudy, violent and bloody. No subtly there. From the Saw series to the ridiculous Final Destination series to the stupid Friday The 13th series to almost anything Eli Roth directs, blood and guts are king. No subtlety, no nuance, definitely no characterization or plot development. Just splatter and arterial spray. Ugh. If that’s your thing, fine. However you are terminally 14 and have a dire, world-ending need to caress a breast, you just want cheap thrills (and you can get that from a well-placed can of Reddi-Wip). BTW, if your date agrees to see one of such movies with you, her chest is nervous with anticipation. Win-win I guess.
Terror? That’s a whole other animal. Watching a terror film you don’t get splatter, you get a racing pulse. You don’t get laid. Small sacrifice. In return you get a rush, a thrill, a story, an interest and a lot of jump scares (which are totally underrated, BTW). And why do jump scares get such a bad rap regarding scary movies? Many classic terror movies are custom made for them. Psycho, Halloween, Alien, The Haunting…
Robert Wise’s The Haunting is an ideal example of terror. Nowadays we call such subgenera “thrillers,” like Silence Of The Lambs or Get Out. I’m going to lay claim to The Haunting as ground zero for the modern concept of terror films. There may have earlier and maybe done better later, but The Haunting can be the most definitive covering all bases. The bases being building tension (often relentlessly so), firm character development all around (as opposed to cannon fodder), little to no (explicit) violence and letting the imagination fill in the blanks.
Here’s what I mean from our chosen film: the story is that a few paranormal investigators—professional and amateur—spend the night in an allegedly haunted mansion and record their findings. That’s it. However over the course of 2 hours you never see a single ghost. Sure, there is evidence of spirit activity, but nothing concrete. It’s scary as hell as your imagination runs riot trying to fill in the gaps. Was that a ghost? What’s that sound? Hey, where did so-and-so get to? Let’s investigate that locked room. Creepy sh*t. Crawling terror.
The first time I caught The Haunting was on Turner Classic Movies. Long time back, before streaming and DVRs were extant. It was Halloween time, so duh, TCM went through its vaults and aired the very best in scary. Now TCM airs its stuff commercial free. No interruptions to ruin the moment. I’m all down with that, until 30 minutes into the film I had to pee. I held it for another half hour until my teeth were floating, and relieved myself at light speed so not miss much more. I was that drawn into the amazing tension Wise imbued the film with, and nary and arterial spray or chainsaws could be found. My heart was pounding. Go stream it, dammit. And for pity’s sake ignore the 1999 remake at all costs.
Back to The Lighthouse. I felt the movie fell into the terror category, but with overarching senses of horror, allegory and quite a bit of psychological hoodoo. I was almost—almost—tempted to spoil a good portion of the plot, so dense, wonky and just a full out Greco-roman clusterf*ck it was to behold. I can get scared witless and cracked up really high by a good terror movie. I’ve never really been outright disturbed by one. But here I am and we all are.
As disturbing as the movie was, I found it owed a bit of thanks to Mad magazine. For a good portion of the film all the hallmarks were present for your standard haunted house tale. Isolation, creepy things in the shadows, hints at supernatural goings on, etc. Typical fare, almost a parody. Also like Mad let’s just throw every cracked idea we got and see what fits into the story and what is just plain weird. The entire first act is relatively lightweight (EG: Winslow doing chores, Wake chewing scenery as the ancient, scuppered sailor, male bonding over a drink, etc) to either fool you into a sense of polite unease or warming up for ramming speed. I thought both.
Then the winds changed. The supernatural (if that what is was) began to crawl into the frame via Winslow’s POV, as well as the subtle-as-neon metaphors. We swiftly learn that Winslow is
REDACTED and as his guilt grows he descended further into drink, grief and madness until nothing makes much sense in the final act. The man becomes completely unravelled, aided by Wake who may or may not have the answers to undo Winslow’s drunken frenzy. This movie was terrifying because it was relentless in making you question every little detail to determine what was really going on only to have another piece added (or taken away) to the puzzle. That and there eventually came many scenes that could only be described as “gooey.”
I’ve never been so rattled by a terror film like The Lighthouse. Not for it’s strangeness or outright horror elements. I felt so confused, spun around and bamboozled by what I had watched I fell like I had gone for a tumble in an unbalanced washing machine. Tearing at my hair grumbling, “What the f*ck?” I analyzed it nine ways to Sunday and my brain would not let go until a few days later. That’s a unique scary movie experience. More unique than holding your water for an hour waiting to see a ghost that’s never there.
Kinda like Winslow.
Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. I only say “mild” because there was a lot of studying—both during class and for homework—to follow the movie. Otherwise, it was quite an experience in terror.
- “Keeps ’em…stupid.”
- Was there a reason why the film wasn’t full screen?
- I wondered how Dafoe affected that voice. He indeed sounds like an old salt, no pretense.
- “Had enough of trees, I guess.”
- No matter the place or time, you got to appreciate a good drinking song.
- Pattinson’s contempt is smeared all of his face: “I don’t have time for this crap…”
- “Yer fond of me lobster!”
- Pattinson’s makeup is impressive. He looks more like a cadaver as the films rolls on.
- “…I ain’t want to be stranded here with some damn lunatic!”
The Next Time…
You’re still working at what is not your dream job. You kid is a holy terror, both at home and school. You’ve never, ever, ever successfully maintained a balanced budget. And you still surf Reddit for “all the answers.”
Yep, This Is 40.