The Witch is the kind of movie that makes you think the filmmaker behind it might never make another movie ever again. It is too detailed, too deeply researched, too fully realized – if a movie can be “too” any of those things. The Witch is an obvious labor of devotion, evidence of a passion so all-consuming, you think it is possible the making of the film might have consumed the filmmaker entirely. (It is also the most-read review on this website.)
But Robert Eggers is back with The Lighthouse, another unsettling time warp into the dark recesses of American folklore, and he brought his key collaborators with him: cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, composer Mark Korven, editor Louise Ford, production designer Craig Lathrop, and costumer Linda Muir. Again they are able to recreate the past and bring to life the myths and superstitions that governed the lives of Americans on the edge of the Modern era and on the edge of madness. I held my breath watching The Lighthouse, both because of the tension in the narrative and because I could hardly believe hey could do this again, that it was possible for filmmakers to (twice!) rebuild the past in such convincing detail. It’s not archeology. It’s necromancy.
The story: two men, one old (Willem Dafoe, “Long John Shiver”) and one young (Robert Pattinson, clammy), arrive on a remote island to man a lighthouse for a month. They bring nothing with them except their shame and superstitions. Their personalities break like waves against the rocks and then slip and reshape to fit like water running through the cracks in their brains. These men alone on a windswept rock to what men do – they work, they drink, they fight, they “beat a seagull” or two. And there are screeching mermaids and tentacled beasts and curses delivered with craggy fury. But first, before anything else happens, there are fart jokes, because in addition to being just this side of terrifying, The Lighthouse is also hilarious. I laughed constantly, though I was the only one in my theater who did.
Maybe I was primed to see the humor having just rewatched Dr. Strangelove a few days before. There is something Kubrickian about the entire affair – the purposeful black and white cinematography, the gargantuan performances, the attention to detail, the material-metaphysical ooze, the low key misanthropy. The whole movie is dreamlike, especially the scenes that are explicitly not dreams. The Lighthouse is manic and controlled all at once. Looney Tunes. A surgeon performing a colectomy an axe.
But back to the horror of the thing. Many did not find The Witch scary at all. Perusing reactions, those who found it frightening seemed to be those who gave credence to the beliefs that animated the family in the film. If you don’t believe in demons, possession, or the devil, The Witch is just an odd trip into things people “used to believe.” I believe there’s something to the spirituality of the Puritans, so I found The Witch profoundly unsettling.
Watching The Lighthouse though, I think I understand what many felt watching The Witch. I don’t fear merfolk, sea gods, and other maritime myths, so I am not haunted by the meanies in The Lighthouse. How strange, I think while watching the movie, to be terrorized by such things. But these numinous nasties are real to these seamen, and they would think me mad to doubt their beliefs. Compared to many of my contemporaries, I am not a secular man, but compared to these “wickies,” as they call themselves, I am. It is good to have my dormant superstitions reanimated for a spell, to remember how recently I would have cowered in the storm with men like these. It is good to walk outside after the movie ends and feel the modern psychological freedom again which I too often take for granted. Then a seagull flies overhead, and I shudder.