CANNES, France—According to the lingo of the entertainment industry, Robert Eggers’s new film The Lighthouse, which premiered at Cannes on Sunday as part of the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, is a “long-awaited” follow-up to The Witch, the director’s innovative debut horror film. Although The Lighthouse has already proved a crowd-pleaser with both the Cannes audience and critics, it’s a less revelatory film than The Witch, a slow-burning shocker that was exceptional for its devotion to period detail and a climactic scene that dared to imply that 17th-century “witch hunts” might not have been fueled purely by paranoia.
The Lighthouse is both less terrifying and more calculated in its effects, especially Eggers’s determination to toy with our expectations of what defines a contemporary horror movie. The chief pleasures to be derived from the film involve its unapologetically manipulative twist on old-fashioned ghost stories (based on an idea by Eggers’s brother Max, the movie aspires to evoke the grandeur of Herman Melville but is more reminiscent of a midlevel Twilight Zone episode that borrows a few notions from bawdy sea shanties) and the ingenious pairing of stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
Dafoe and Pattinson play lighthouse “wickies” (so named because of their original proximity to oil wicks) in an isolated corner of the Maine coast during the 19th century. Dafoe has great fun impersonating a crusty, aging lighthouse keeper named Thomas Wake, a former seaman who exerts tyrannical control over his deputy—Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow, a onetime Canadian “timberman “with a mysterious past.
Before long, it’s apparent that the tense power struggle between the cantankerous Thomas and the novice Ephraim (who we eventually learn is actually named Thomas as well) is more central to the film than its superficial flirtation with supernatural horror motifs. Dafoe’s Thomas, affecting an odd brogue that perfectly underlines how the character’s sinister nature is initially concealed by a folksy veneer, treats Ephraim like a pathetic underling and never fails to come up with inventively scatological ways to curse his assistant. (“Curdled sperm” is an especially memorable turn of phrase.) A prickly old sod who farts incessantly, Thomas takes sadistic delight in ordering the younger man to re-swab floors that have been meticulously cleaned.
Quite predictably, the seemingly docile Ephraim has his comeuppance and turns the tables on his torturer. In The Lighthouse’s twist on the master/slave dynamic, intense hatred becomes intermingled with thinly concealed homoerotic tropes. Ephraim’s desire to rebel against his autocratic boss is inextricable from his sexual frustration. Simultaneously repulsed by and smitten with a vision of a sexy mermaid, he engages in frenzied bouts of masturbation that appear to fuel his will to power. His madness becomes a modus operandi to triumph over adversity.
There’s a great deal of ostentatious cinematic technique, much of it an obvious homage to silent cinema—especially German Expressionism—on display. Filming in black and white with vintage lenses while deploying the boxy Academy ratio of classical Hollywood cinema, The Lighthouse is a film buff’s wet dream—even though there’s something a bit academic about the filmmakers’ allusions to classic movies. Fortunately, the cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who also lensed The Witch) is quite capable of aiding and abetting Eggers’s visual panache. If the truth be told, however, the film certainly lacks the manic conviction of silent horror films such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu; the slices of movie history that Eggers serves up are a little too slickly packaged.
Nevertheless, Dafoe and Pattinson ‘s performances are worth the price of admission. Dafoe’s impersonation of a charismatic creep is especially compelling. Pattinson, in some respects, has the trickier role. He has to develop from a withdrawn young man into an embodiment of undiluted rage. Fortunately, since his Twilight days, Pattinson has evolved into a subtle actor who, after serving an apprenticeship with David Cronenberg and Claire Denis, is now more at home in art house cinema than in multiplex fare.
While The Witch tapped into the submerged potency of female rage, The Lighthouse is invested in unveiling the devastation that can be wrought by that already hoary cliché: “toxic masculinity.” Perhaps that’s why The Witch appeared fresher and more startling and The Lighthouse is, for all its stylistic flair, more familiar and derivative.