Tag Archives: Robert Eggers

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers

FEATURING: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

PLOT: Ephraim Winslow attempts to escape his past and earn good money tending a remote lighthouse for a month under ex-sea captain Thomas Wake; things get desperate when they are not relieved on schedule.

Srill from The Lighthouse (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What begins as “standard” art-horror keeps shoveling on the madness until you can’t think it can go any farther. It does, and ends on a Promethean note that looks like it could have been lifted straight from a sharper-imaged Begotten.

COMMENTS: I sat too far to the front to be able to tell you if anyone walked out of the movie (often a good sign for us), but I can tell you that it passed the next best test: right after it ended, a viewer queried loudly, “What the fuck was that?” I have to admit that that is a fair question. I kept alternating my “Candidate/Capsule” toggle throughout the movie, right up until the soggy, sickly, climax when two compelling things occurred. The first thing: watching Robert Pattinson burn away any mainstream reputation he might have had from his Twilight movies. The second thing: I could not have hoped for a better, more mind-popping final shot.

The first word of dialogue isn’t one, really. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), recently arrived to as remote an island as possible, makes a muffled grunt when entering his quarters. At the far end of the room, his boss, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), finishes urinating into a chamber pot and pointedly passes gas before beginning to hum. Ephraim, his environment established and his company defined, does his lowly duties, forever pining to tend the beacon that Thomas jealously guards. A one-eyed seagull torments the young man, until one day he responds to its attack by smashing it thoroughly to death against a cistern. This forgivable outburst is the catalyst for a storm that smashes against the island, changing Ephraim’s circumstances from mundane and miserable to forlorn and febrile.

Its frame ratio, as far as I was able to observe, is one-to-one1, a presentation typically found only in very old movies. The motion of characters from one corner to the opposite diagonal of the screen just doesn’t have the same “punch” when there’s a standard panorama to cross, and the screen’s confines heighten the cramped nature of the setting. The lighting, too, hearkens back to cinema’s early days. The Lighthouse is set in the late 19th century on the edge of a watery nowhere, and the light comes only from occasional, well-diffused sunlight and dim candles. Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake, illuminated by a flickering light against the black room, was the stuff of comic nightmares. (His dialogue, the credits admit, is largely taken from Herman Melville, and every soliloquy is both bombastic and believable.)

Eggers drives the narrative in the one direction it can go—but while so doing brings in every horrible bit of natural humanity (Aleksey German crossed my mind on many occasions), grappling his characters to the edge before giving them a final shove into the roiling abyss. Knowing Dafoe’s filmography, I knew he had the chops; Pattinson, I have now seen, can match him. Dafoe is credited first, but this is Pattinson’s breakout-crazy performance (so here’s hoping he wanted one). Ephraim explodes in his final rant, its power almost a palpable force in the cinema, silencing the small crowd of hipsters. When the young man posed the question mentioned in the first paragraph, he was speaking for every viewer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a stark, moody, surreal and prolonged descent into seaside madness that will surely not be for everyone.”–Lindsey Barr, Associated Press (contemporaneous)

THE WITCH & IT FOLLOWS (2015)

With the release of The Witch and It  Follows, 2015 was an exceptional year for the horror genre. The Witch, Robert Egger’s directorial debut  proved to be the more provocative of the two; not surprising, given that Puritan oppression as horror strikes close to home. Even more predictable is the expansive hatred for such an original film by formula horror fans. They’re a tribe of Neanderthals, too obtuse to recognize one of the ballsiest film of the last decade.

The Witch‘s subtitle tells us it’s “A New-England Folktale,” set in the mid-seventeenth century. It opens with family patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) banished from this Puritan paradise for unclear reasons. Like Adam and Eve, William and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) are forced to flee to the wilderness, a forest setting that recalls numerous fairy tales. With them are their children, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson),  Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the infant Samuel.

Like most evangelical sects, William’s religion practices a type of anti-ritualism (setting them apart from liturgical competitors); but, as we see from his dialogue with Caleb, a ritualistic anti-ritualism ritualism sets in. Caleb is a willing subscriber.

Along with the rituals comes Puritan oppression, and a superstitious anti-superstition soon rears its horrific head. Thomasin, left in charge of Samuel, entertains him with a game of peekaboo, but on the fourth uncovering of her eyes, Samuel has vanished.

Still from The Witch (2015)Did a scarlet witch abduct Samuel? Or, is Thomasin guilty of witchcraft herself? Initially, each family member professes guilt over the disappearance of Samuel, but true to the tenets of Puritanism, the antagonists—or imagined antagonists—take feminine forms.

In sharp contrast, Caleb, the male child, is his father’s candidate for godly martyrdom. The proof is in the pudding when Caleb’s holy innocence is tested, aroused by Thomasin’s cleavage. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw lead a cast that gives stunning performance, restoring our faith in acting.

The film is replete with beautifully horrifying imagery, including a blood-spurting black goat and one of the most unnerving finales in recent memory; straight from bowels of a Goya canvas. Eggers’ sense of period detail, as impressive as it is, is topped by his finding the pulse of the Puritan mindset. The eye of his hurricane is Taylor-Joy who, abandoned by God and family, spans a range in a single film that most actors can’t accomplish in an entire body of work.

It Follows is the second feature effort from director David Robert Mitchell, who impressed with his debut film, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2011). Teen Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex in the back seat of her car with current beau. Since the setting is the horror genre, we all know from the much-quoted Scream (1996) that this means certain death. Sort of.

Many commentators have honed in on the sex and death equation and see It Follows as a parable about STDS. Sort of.  Cool and kinetic, It Follows revels in its paradoxes. When Jay’s boy toy copulates with her, he passes on a stalking demon that can take any form. It’s slow but lethal, and the only way to rid oneself of this shape-shifting ogre is to copulate with someone else before it turns you into beached leg of lamb. Sort of. There’s a catch, of course. If your victim doesn’t pass it on, It will return to Follow you.

and Howard Hawks were mightily offended by Carl Foreman’s script for High Noon (1952), which depicted a narcissistic community refusing to help their neighbors. In response they made Rio Bravo in 1959, then remade it twice. It Follows has it both ways. To prevent her own demise, Jay has to play the narcissist, but she does so reluctantly, and depends on her community of friends for help (parents are out of the question, as it should be).

Still from It Follows (2015)Mitchell chooses his predators smartly, ranging from a child to a naked old man perched on a roof. He clearly has fun pulling from a bag of personality types, embracing the genre tropes, and playing with them like silly putty. References to Val Lewton and ‘s Cat People (1942) abound, along with John Carpenter (including Rich Vreeland’s score) but, like Lewton, Mitchell is not content to merely repeat the past. He’s too progressive for that, and for conservative horror geeks.