At the Lighthouse of Madness

lighthouseActually, just typing that title makes me think that a film of H P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness might benefit by taking a similar approach to this film -black and white, obtuse to the point of impenetrable plot (if there even is one)- but I have to confess it just annoyed the hell out of me in this film. On the one hand, sure, I could admire the gritty, atmospheric b&w cinematography, the unnerving sound design, but as a piece of storytelling it just felt broken. 

Which was very disappointing, because I really enjoyed being intrigued and horrified  by Robert Eggers’ earlier film, The Witch, from 2015. The Lighthouse shared that film’s sense of dread and welcome tendency to undermine traditional horror tropes, but The Lighthouse just goes too far into delirium, frankly, as if Eggers just lost control and succumbed to his own temporary madness making it.

Or maybe I’m not giving the film sufficient credit for successfully delving into madness as the subject matter of a film. Sadly the irony is that it doesn’t really function as a film at all. Its perhaps more of a tone poem than a story, the plot being two lighthouse keepers on a New England island in the 1890s don’t really get along and promptly lose their shit. I mean that’s about it, really. Eggers throws in some vague references to scary mermaids and Lovecraftian Cthuloid horror but that’s one of the characters minds succumbing to the Lighthouse of Madness. I think I would have preferred it to be literal; you know, there really is something Lovecraftian going on at this strange, remote island on the edge of 19th century civilization. Its not that the madness of it all is actually anything wrong, its just that it robs the film of what might have been a genuinely chilling story. 

Maybe I was just in the mood for an old-fashioned horror tale rather than a cerebral art-house tale. Yes the two leads are really very good – I don’t think I’ve seen William Dafoe as good as this in many years, and Pattinson might actually turn out to be an intriguing Batman after all-  but I think their efforts are wasted in an ironically empty-headed and pointless film. Its frustrating because otherwise, it is such a brilliantly made period piece- the acting, art direction, atmosphere, dialogue all lending it a wonderfully convincing  sense of time and place, that if it really had genuine horrors under the surface (sic), it might have been a genuine horror classic and up there with The Wicker Man or The Blood on Satan’s Claw, frankly. 

Or maybe I just missed the point. I have this same issue with some of David Lynch’s films and others of that ilk, where being obtuse almost for the sake of it just strikes me as lazy and frustrating, undermining what should be ‘proper’ storytelling. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I do think it needs a proper framework.

5 thoughts on “At the Lighthouse of Madness

  1. Tom

    I don’t fault you for your dismissal of The Lighthouse. You’re far from alone. Personally, this was the best movie I saw last year. It absolutely stunned me. But I think it stunned me for the very same reasons it turned you off. Not sure if there is a way to bridge that gap, or that it needs to be. This is what’s actually pretty great about movie blogging!

    I might be wrong on this, but I think this story is actually more literal than one might be led to believe with all the kaleidoscopic editing and batshit insane acting and abstract mermaid fuckery. I believe it’s very loosely based upon the Smalls Lighthouse tragedy. Two light keepers descended into madness after being stuck there, and when one of them killed themselves the other man went to lengths to preserve the body so he could keep it around for company. All in all, a lovely little English vacation.

  2. Matthew McKinnon

    I agree with Tom – it’s in my top five for the year. I wasn’t a fan of the Witch and thought this one looked tiresome from the marketing, but it turned out to be one of the most immersive and enjoyable cinema experiences I’ve had in a long time.

    1. I can understand where you and Tom are coming from, particularly if you saw it in a cinema, as I can imagine it was very intense on a big screen with big sound etc. and I can certainly appreciate its credentials regards art direction, sound and cinematography, as I said in my review, as well as the acting, but my issue remains the storytelling aspect, what the great acting etc was all for, what the destination was at the end, which to me was just ultimately nowhere, but as Tom says, different strokes for different folks. I can’t help but feel disappointed by it, with the nagging suspicion that had it gone the way of a traditional horror (i.e. some kind of supernatural revelation) then it might have been a genuinely terrifying film. As it was, it just kind of infuriated and bored me the further it went along.

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