"The Lighthouse" is an ascent into madness

Madness, like misery, loves company.

Or, in the words of writer-director Robert Eggers: "Nothing good can happen when two men are trapped alone in a giant phallus."

That’s the situational predicament of two lighthouse keepers on a remote New England island in the 1890s — a hallucinatory horror story loosely based on a real-life incident in which two Welshmen are trapped in their lonely station during an apocalyptic storm.

Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) slaves away at the endless tasks ordered by tyrannical boss Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), dragging heavy equipment up and down the steep spiral staircase of the lighthouse — but never permitted to actually enter the top.

“What made your last keeper leave?” Winslow asks.

“He believed that there was some enchantment in the light,” Wake replies. “Went mad, he did.”





  • Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson.
  • Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images and some language.

The literary influences here include the seafaring classics of Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, plus supernaturally tinged tales of H.P. Lovecraft. For dialogue, director Robert Eggers (“The Witch” of 2015) and his writer-brother Max read up on 19th-century nautical slang. Dafoe's character articulates his bizarre Shakespearean soliloquies in the jargon of an Atlantic fishermen of the time, while Pattinson's speech is based on a contemporaneous Maine farming dialect.

Filmed in black and white around Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, the extreme weather conditions — freezing temps, intense winds, constant snow and rain — exposed the cast to the elements throughout the shoot, in and around the 70-foot lighthouse tower on a unique outcropping of volcanic rock. Andrew Wyeth paintings inspired some of the Eggers brothers’ more unsettling, surreal, allegorical images.

There even are dream-sequence mermaid sexual encounters, which are central to the characters’ mental state. At the risk of TMI, we’re told by the director that Medieval and Renaissance mermaids were always “split” to accommodate the male fantasy. In the Victorian era, they closed the mermaids up to make them impenetrable. 

Okay, then. That clarifies that — if nothing else.

Pattinson looks seriously old, and Dafoe looks like a seriously old Dutch painting with his scary ramblings in a tour-de-force commitment to his role. You won’t soon forget his incredibly long, attenuated curse against Winslow: “How long have we been on this rock? Two days? Five weeks? … DAMN YE — let Neptune strike ye dead!”

Their fights are amazingly physical and psychological in a horror picture that ends more or less like Kubrick’s “2001.” Don’t ask me exactly what it means.

All I can tell you for sure is that — despite their diabolical treatment on screen — no seagulls were harmed in the making of this movie.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at parispg48@aol.com.

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