Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2019: "The Lighthouse"

Michael Hayward

Horror films have long been a reliable B-movie genre, a safe place for new filmmakers to learn the ropes, and get their foot in the door. Many directors have had good, long-lasting careers in horror: George Romero, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Roger Corman, to name a few. Canada's own David Cronenberg got his start in horror (Shivers, Rabid, Scanners), before going on to become one of the country's foremost auteurs. Acclaimed Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is famously a fan of the horror genre.

Horror films have been going through something of a revival in recent years, to the point where they’re now almost mainstream, or at the very least: they’re almost hip. These successful “nouveau horror” films are proof that horror is still a reliable way to break into the filmmaking business—as well as being a good way for someone to break out of one film ghetto (acting, say), by breaking into another (directing is usually the ultimate goal). Some examples: Jordan Peele, known mainly for his work in TV sketch comedy, made his directorial debut with the 2017 horror film Get Out. It was a huge success, which Peele recently followed up with Us, another horror film, also a success. And in 2018, actor John Krasinski, best known to most for his role as Jim in TV’s The Office, made a similar transition from acting to directing, with his hugely successful horror film A Quiet Place.

Horror films tend to be low-budget (all that money saved on scripts!), which is why it’s not quite as difficult for novice horror filmmakers to find funding; it’s also why so many horror films can make their money back. Add to this the fact that fans of horror films are loyal, and quite forgiving; as long as there’s a good jump scare or two, as long as fake blood gets scattered/spattered liberally around the sets, they’ll leave the theatre feeling as if they’ve got their money’s worth.

So there are ample precedents, and no shortage of good reasons, for an up and coming filmmaker to want to write and direct a low-budget horror film. And if the resulting film is brash and doesn’t take itself too seriously, it might possibly become buzz-worthy. Which brings us to Robert Eggers's new black and white horror film The Lighthouse.

Eggers has just one other feature film under his belt: The Witch, from 2015, which apparently did very well (I haven't seen it). He co-wrote the script for The Lighthouse with his brother Max, and the result is a veritable bouillabaisse of genre clichés.

We have an isolated setting (in other horror films: a deserted mansion, a lonely manor house on the moors), where a storm rages fitfully. The windows are (naturally) lashed by rain, banks of fog drift just offshore, and the wind heaves waves ashore, waves which occasionally threaten to overtop the lighthouse itself.

There are skeleton keys, and spiral staircases, and a room in which one of the characters forbids the other to go. To this we add a dash of vertigo, and the possibility of a fatal fall. For additional maritime detail, why not throw in some scrimshaw, and a stranded mermaid, with seaweed on her face. We can’t forget a few Hitchcockian seagulls, the death of which (of course) could portend disaster, and why not a pump that produces black water—or is it blood? To animate all of the preceding, you've got a pair of gaunt and grizzled lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) who may not be all they seem, and who are (naturally, in such a setting) slowly going mad.

The sets and the setting for The Lighthouse are fabulous; Eggers has an excellent designer’s eye. One of my favourite Lighthouse settings was the outbuilding, attached to the titular lighthouse, which houses a coal-fired, cast-iron boiler, the boiler powering some kind of over-elaborate Victorian mechanism whose mysterious workings include (for no good reason expect “design”) a photogenic, belt-driven flywheel. The function of this contraption is not quite clear; it’s main purpose seems to be that it occasionally requires Robert Pattinson to reveal his torso while shovelling coal into the flames. And the crowning glory of it all is the lighthouse itself, which, at how every many stories tall, is perhaps the largest MacGuffin ever featured onscreen.

It's best, if you're about to watch The Lighthouse, that you don't worry too much about narrative coherency: there are plot holes in The Lighthouse so big that you could sail a three-master schooner through them without worrying about the spars scraping the sides. But in the end it doesn’t really matter: The Lighthouse is an enormous amount of fun, and I recommend it.

There's only one screening of The Lighthouse scheduled during VIFF 2019: on Saturday, September 28 at 6:00 PM. Advance tickets are apparently sold out, but there's usually a chance on standby. You can view a trailer for the film here. More information on the film is available here.



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