Summer of Horror: The Lighthouse Bill the Butcher Vs. Captain Ahab

Slow-burn horror has become incredibly popular in the past decade, rising in tandem with horror in general becoming more accepted in critics circles. Robert Eggers’ breakout film The Witch is a masterclass in the slow burn, and his second, The Lighthouse, well, just about anything you could say about The Witch you can say about this. It’s weird and idiosyncratic, it’s set far in the past, it uses ostensibly period-accurate dialogue that practically requires the use of subtitles. And, certain pedantic types will insist that it isn’t “horror”.

To me what stood out the most is that this kind of script is an actor’s dream. The two stars, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, seem determined to out-act one another for the entire duration. Dafoe is doing sort of a fleshed out version of the Simpsons’ Sea Captain, while Pattinson is channeling Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York. And they both turn it up to 11. Together, they perform the miserable, thankless work of lighthouse keepers in the 19th century, get drunk, bicker, fist fight, and ultimately get stranded there by relentless storms and slowly lose their minds.

This is all about long, uncut, wild-eyed monologues, the texture of sodden wood and mud and stone, the relentless howl of foghorns, and madness. And potentially an old sailor’s curse or two. Just as in The Witch, there is also an animal that portends impending doom. In this case, an ominous seagull. There’s also a strong Shining element here, more than one camera shot or soundtrack choice that seems a deliberate homage to Kubrick’s film. In fact, at one point one character literally limp-chases after the other brandishing an axe.

As for whether this is horror or not, it certainly is. There are moments of dark comedy, but this a bleak film about the descent into Hell, madness, or both. For being such a slow burn, it’s never boring, always compelling, and worth watching for the mega-acting and bonkers ending.

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