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Director Of ‘The Witch’ Delivers New Tale Of Dread With ‘The Lighthouse’

Robert Eggers returns to New England haunts for his sophomore film

Photo credit: A24

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star in Robert Eggers' "The Lighthouse."

Companion viewing

"Nosferatu" (1922)

"The secret of Roan Inish" (1994)

"The Witch" (2015)

"The Lure" (2015)

Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

Robert Eggers scored a hit with his debut film “The Witch” in 2015. He returns to his New England haunts for this year’s “The Lighthouse” and it’s every bit as good as his first film.

Robert Eggers’ films transport us to another place and time. They make me think of that Christopher Reeve film “Somewhere in Time” where Reeve sends himself back in time through self-hypnosis and is able to live in a world of the past until he finds a modern penny in his pocket. That one tiny, out of place item is enough to yank him out of the past and back to the present.

Eggers creates films with such fanatical attention to detail that you’ll never find an incongruent coin to disrupt the illusion he is creating. In “The Witch” he transported us to New England in the 1630s and had all the costumes hand sewn and the tables hand hewn for absolute authenticity. Is that really necessary? Probably not if you are just a typical filmmaker. But Eggers is not. He is unique and his films cast a spell on viewers precisely because of his meticulous attention to the tiniest details.

For “The Lighthouse” he takes us to 1890s New England where two men keep a lighthouse on an isolated rock of an island.

“The idea was to create a ghost story in a lighthouse,” Eggers said. “It didn't end up being a ghost story and it ended up being something more strange. But it was that concept and then the black and white atmosphere, the black and white, crusty, dusty, rusty, musty atmosphere of this nautical world with cable knit Guernsey sweaters and stumpy great pipes and salt cod that was the world we wanted to explore.”

He builds this world starting with the Movietone aspect ratio of 1.19:1 used in the 1920s. The boxy aspect ratio not only harkens back to an earlier cinematic format but it also adds to the sense of confinement the characters feel. Audiences are used to images filling the expanse of a typical 1.85:1 cinema screen so to see two characters cramped inside a box that barely fills a third of the widescreen intensifies the claustrophobia of being trapped in that lighthouse with nowhere else to really go.

Eggers then amplifies that vintage feel by replicating the look of orthochromatic film stock that originated in the 1880s. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke created a filter to give the film that orthochromatic look.

“Basically the main thing about it is that it’s not sensitive to red light,” Eggers said. “So the color red renders as black and all the rosy hues in Caucasian skin tones render darker so you’re picking up every blood vessel and pore, which is going to make Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe look more like salty seamen.”

Photo credit: A24

Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) are isolated on a remote New England island in Robert Eggers' "The Lighthouse."

But Eggers, who co-wrote the script with his brother, Max, goes even farther. The two of them researched the dialects of the time and sought documents that provided them with authentic dialogue to give their actors. All these things contribute to creating a vivid world that does not feel of our time and it’s absolutely mesmerizing and just a bit hallucinatory.

The premise is simple. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) are left on a remote and isolated New England island to operate a lighthouse. They begin with a clear sense of order and duties to be performed but as time passes their grasp on reality slips and strange things start to occur.

That’s all I want to say because the less you know the better. The film does invoke the spirit of Herman Melville and H.P. Lovecraft but with a flair that is all Eggers’ own. He grew up in New England with its folklore of witches and vacationed by lighthouses that stirred his young imagination. So he has smartly turned to his own backyard for ideas that give his films a personal flavor. But unlike “The Witch,” which was relentlessly severe in its intensity, “The Lighthouse” reveals odd bursts of humor.

Eggers makes films that fall into the horror genre yet push the boundaries of how we define horror. There are no conventional horror beats or scares yet his films are filled with a sense of dread created by his precise use of light, shot composition, sound design, and perfectly pitched performances. The soundscape of this film is particularly effective as ambient sound blurs into music, which in turn slip into sound effects. The creaking of wood, whistling of wind, cries of birds, and a host of other sounds create an ominous sense of unease. The sounds and the visuals give the film a texture that you can almost touch, and the film feels like some artifact dug up out of an old trunk where it has been hidden for a century.

“The Lighthouse” is one of the best films of the year and quite simply a masterfully crafted work of art.

Listen to my interview with Eggers on Cinema Junkie Podcast 181.

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