VIFF 2019: The Lighthouse

It’s a year for follow-ups: The Lighthouse, Us, The Nightingale, The Lodge, Under the Silver Lake, and Midsommar all arrive as sophomore(-ish) works from breakout directors in the horror genre. These movies are not all good, and they’re not all horror. But there’s a bit of meta fun in seeing each one: can these directors pull it off again?

With The Lighthouse, his historically based but jauntily absurd seaside yarn starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, director Robert Eggers (The VVitch) proves himself perhaps the most consistent of the bunch. He’s also, it seems, the weirdest.

The story is straightforward. Two lighthouse keepers arrive on an island. One is an old lighthouse veteran with the manner of a salty sea dog and the flatulence of someone used to working alone, or acting like it. The other is a young newcomer with an unclear past and a quiet, grouchy aloofness that might be the product of shyness, or secretiveness, or more flatulence. The veteran guards the top of the lighthouse every night and locks the door behind him, while the frustrated newcomer shovels all manner of figurative and literal shit and looks enviously up to the mysterious light at the top of the tower.

Midsommar and The Lighthouse are both releases from A24, who’ve been setting themselves up as the art-horror alternative to Blumhouse fare. Midsommar, director Ari Aster’s follow-up to the inconsistent but thrilling Hereditary, has already come and gone in theatres, receiving by far the largest release that any of these movies can look forward to. Aster’s movie was mind-numbingly dull, the product of a director whose contempt for genre is clear and, in this case, totally debilitating. But to its credit, it doubled down on Hereditary’s offbeat, high-art-beholden approach to a hacky genre story, drawing mainstream audiences in for a genuinely weird experience. Aster followed his breakthrough the way you’re supposed to: more, and bigger.

Eggers has gone in a different direction: less, and smaller. The VVitch had a family’s worth of characters and explored at least a couple different locations; The Lighthouse is a two-hander and stays claustrophobically locked on the smallest of islands. It’s also black-and-white, shot in full-frame, largely non-literal, and mostly about two guys yelling weird dialogue at each other and occasionally lusting after mermaids. Really, Eggers is delivering not just less, but less accessible, and that’s where The Lighthouse really stands in contrast to Midsommar.

So the movie may not deliver for much of the Friday night horror crowd. The Lighthouse isn’t straightforwardly scary—certainly less so than The Witch, in any case—and it ultimately swerves from even some of the genre payoffs it seems to promise early on. If anything, it’s a Friday night horror movie for the Sunday afternoon art movie crowd. But it’s so filled with original images and gorgeous cinematography and committed acting and plain unpredictability that something’s sure to lodge in your mind, even if you don’t want it there. If original is what you’re after, The Lighthouse is the sophomore effort to see.