The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse (2019)

Written by Robert & Max Eggars. Directed by Robert Eggars.

As anyone who comes here regularly would know, I watch a lot of movies. Sometimes they are perfectly fine while up on the screen but don’t stay with me, and within hours I need to refer to notes made in the cinema to jog my memory into writing a review. Not so with Robert Eggars’ latest film – I found it truly memorable and cannot stop thinking about it!

The Lighthouse is many things, which makes it difficult to adequately describe without giving away massive plot spoilers – which I have no intention of doing. Suffice it to say, I found this seemingly simple story of two men alone in a lighthouse a riveting cinematic experience that becomes increasingly complex and deep. From the opening scene, this is a film that demands your full attention and becomes (at times) uncomfortably intense.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star in this two-hander and both are excellent. I’ve come to expect this of Dafoe, who never disappoints, but Pattinson is extraordinary here and has become an actor of depth and serious value. There is surprisingly little dialogue between them but that is delivered with intent and tension. For a relatively quiet film, it’s very loud, with superb diagetic sound and a score that weaves through this isolated and desolate world.

For film nerds (like me), the movie was shot on 35 mm black and white film stock, using vintage Baltar lenses, which required much stronger lighting for the interior scenes, creating deeper contrasts and also forcing the almost square 1.19:1 (or Movietone) aspect ratio. This makes so much of the film ultra close up and at times, downright claustrophobic despite being so isolated. There are many seemingly small things like this that combine together to make this film a cinephile’s delight – the haunting sound design, the very specific dialects used by the actors, the atmospheric score by Mark Korven, the brilliant cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, and the superb editing by Louise Ford. All combine together to make a truly memorable cinematic experience.

Narratively, the story was drawn initially from an unfinished work by Edgar Allen Poe and a real-life incident from an early 19th century Welsh lighthouse. But at its heart, I think this has more in common with Greek tragedy – particularly Proteus, the prophetic sea god and Prometheus, the trickster who stole fire from the gods and was punished so horribly. Set in the late 19th century, this is a period piece that doesn’t exclude modern viewers. There are strong themes of the performative nature of work and masculinity, which are relatable audience entry points and become so very obvious as the layers of social norms are stripped away from the characters and their true natures revealed. And above all, the lighthouse – which almost becomes a character itself, in all its intense and claustrophobic isolation.

At times, The Lighthouse is a hard watch and if you’re not a fan of being challenged by a piece of cinema, I cannot recommend it to you. However, if you like horror that is cerebral as well as visceral, you’ve come to the right place. If there is a fault, it is a little over-long with a running time of 109 minutes, but I wonder now if that was intentional. Like Eggars’ previous feature, The Witch (2015) there are questions posed that are never answered. The existential horror at the core of this drama is arguably something that exists in all of us and here, Robert Eggars in concert with his excellent cast and crew, gradually peel away the artifice of societal expectations to reveal that dark heart.

The Lighthouse is currently in (relatively) wide release across Australia and I’d like to thank Monster Fest for the opportunity to see and review it.

Suspiria (1977) & Suspiria (2018)

I have to confess, the original Suspiria (1977) has always been one of my favourite horror films and Dario Argento a director I generally enjoy, despite the unevenness of his oeuvre. So when the remake was announced, I was a little concerned that anyone should mess with one of the movies that ushered me into adulthood.

On the plus side, Luca Guadagnino has made some good films, such as The Protagonists (1999) and Call Me by Your Name (2017). He’s a regular collaborator with Tilda Swinton and I’d read enough to know that he wasn’t going to try to do a shot-for-shot remake. I decided finally to watch both in the same day, starting with the original.

I can’t remember where I saw Suspiria when it finally arrived in Australia – it might have been at a film festival – but I know it was in a cinema. I do remember being awed by both its astonishingly bright colour palette and the really wonderful score by prog-rock band, Goblin. Jessica Harper stars as the virginal Suzy Bannion, who arrives as the new American student at a dance academy in Freiburg, all to the background of the Munich hostage crisis. There was also an absence of men, which was unusual for most horror films of the era, let alone giallo – a traditional domain of the leering, usually psychotic, sex-crazed maniac! Instead, male characters are sidelined and the screen is dominated by women of all ages, body types and dispositions ranging from the ridiculously innocent to the truly evil. Harper is sublime as the ingénue whose dewy eyed innocence is so lovingly captured in Argento’s frame.

While many aspects of this film haven’t aged particularly well (even back in the day it could be read as camp) it has an undeniable atmosphere, a creepiness that builds throughout to a climax that is ridiculous, gory and oddly satisfying all at once. Every time I’ve watched this over the years, I always think of it as a drug-fuelled, psychedelic Alice in Wonderland horror for the late 1970s.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria is unsurprisingly, a completely different beast. To start with, the academy has been transferred to Berlin, though in the same time period. Interiors are muted and drab and exteriors are predominantly in rain or snow, which gives a bleak coldness to the film. There are sub-plots involving Baader-Meinhof terrorism and Germany coming to terms with its Nazi history which I found muddied the central theme of the dance academy as a home for an ancient coven.

Dakota Johnson takes the central role of Susie and while I like her as an actress, I found it difficult to connect with her in the role of the innocent ingénue (Mia Goth as Sara seemed to fit this role with far more ease and believability). Nevertheless, there is a sincerity that Johnson brings to Susie, applying herself to the bizarre tasks required for the sake of the dance. And dance is a major theme in this version.

Where Argento used it only as a mechanism to provide a house full of women, Guadagnino milks it relentlessly, particularly as a means of controlling and manipulating the bodies and minds of the young dancers. Head of the academy, Madame Blanc is played with equal parts relish and menace by the always wonderful Tilda Swinton. It also made me realise she is undoubtedly one of the most graceful women on the planet and it’s worth watching just for her. She also plays a prominent male role (albeit under a lot of make-up) which works up to a point.

Thom Yorke provides a good musical score as expected and Jessica Harper makes a welcome appearance in a small role, but where this film fell down for me was in attempting to make something much deeper than the material allowed.

Throughout, I felt Guadagnino was trying to dig down deep into the psychological underpinnings of horror but in an altogether far too knowing manner. The result was for me, a ham-fisted and overly long mess – and turning what should have been an emotional and (literally) gut-wrenching ending into a pastiche of 21st Century nihilist cinema with added red.

Worth watching if only for Swinton and it has some good moments – but for me, ultimately a disappointment.

Suspiria (1977) is available to watch in Australia on Tubi and Suspiria (2018) is currently on Amazon Prime