Mermaids, one-eyed seagulls, and glimpses of sea monsters; Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is anything but a mainstream horror. This undeniably weird film landed in the UK in the “normal” part of 2020, meaning that it had an actual cinema release. If any of this year’s films needed to be seen on the big screen, The Lighthouse is definitely up there. A total attack on the senses, this monochrome, mind-bending horror is all-consuming when viewed in a cinema. 

Shot in 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the characters and audience are literally boxed into this unflinching nightmare, which sees Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) slowly driving each other mad, as they find themselves cut off from all other life on a tiny, battered island off the Nova Scotia coast. When a savage storm hits, the lighthouse keepers’ living quarters become a hellish nightmare, where sick and piss-filled waters flood the rooms, time becomes meaningless, and when they run out of food the only thing left to do is to drink, and drink, and drink…

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Courtesy of: Universal Pictures International

While it may be the sinister ‘light’ that the two characters covet, the real evil that drives them to madness is the intense claustrophobia that they are subjected to. All of the elements battle against them to wear them down and keep them shut in, with no signs of escape or respite. Crashing waves, howling wind, and that monotonous, soul-destroying siren grind them down day by day. The rain lashes down in sheets, pouring through the ceiling of their ramshackle cottage. The rugged landscape makes even the shortest journey between the little buildings treacherous at best. And when night falls, the darkness literally engulfs them, only a small oil lamp lighting their faces in the gloomy cabin. 

The thing that truly sets The Lighthouse apart from other horror films is Eggers’ complete refusal to draw the line between reality and nightmare. At no point is it clear whether what you’re seeing is actually real or not; even Pattinson and Dafoe had different ideas about what was and wasn’t happening. There’s also no defined good or bad guy, both men have very questionable motives, and sometimes your sympathies can flip between the two mid-scene. It’s a daring move to have no real hero to back, but the two actors are pitch-perfect throughout, keeping the audience on their toes for the full 110 minutes. Pattinson puts in a career-best performance as he gives his all into switching from being a mumbling, monosyllabic mystery, to a ranting and raving mad man, completely ruined by both his time in the lighthouse and by coming to terms with his own despicable acts. 

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Courtesy of: Universal Pictures International

Dafoe manages to avoid caricature and truly embodies an old seadog as Thomas, his face aged beyond his years and his dialect seemingly from another world, let alone another time. By day he is the furiously committed lighthouse keeper, working his understudy’s hands to the bone. By night, he softens slightly, intrigued by Ephraim’s quietness. As the darkness and the drink engulf the two men, out come truths, half-truths and barefaced lies, as well as some genuinely very funny moments. They sing, they dance, they rile each other up and end up in one another’s arms. Even the stand-out scene where Dafoe summons Triton himself to drag Ephraim to the murky depths of the sea ends in a ridiculous one-liner. Eggers manages to find an incredibly unlikely balance between psychological horror, mythology, grotesque visuals, and ridiculous humour.

While the storyline alone is enough to make The Lighthouse memorable, it’s the level of detail from Eggers and his team that makes this film burn into your subconscious. Rather than trying to find an old lighthouse to suit their needs, they built a fake lighthouse on the coast of Nova Scotia in winter, looking to a lighthouse keeper’s book from 1881 as a point of reference. They not only shot on black and white 35mm film, but they also created a filter for the cameras to make it look like photographic film stock from the late 1800s. Everything about The Lighthouse is an obvious labour of love. There isn’t a single shot within the film that doesn’t do something to add to the strange, almost mythical world that has been created here. 


Courtesy of: Universal Pictures International

For only his second feature-length film as a director, Eggers creates a truly unique piece of work that manages to infuriate as much as it does delight, refusing to give any real sense of closure for viewers (or, indeed, the cast). Open massively to interpretation, The Lighthouse is an example of a film that truly does benefit from multiple viewings, with small details and the odd glance hinting at the possibility of some kind of paranormal entity having a stronghold over the lighthouse keepers. Or, they simply drank too much of the lethal spirits they concocted when the booze ran out. The joy of The Lighthouse is that it’s really for you to decide.

So to recap, here’s our Top 20 so far…

=#20 – Shirley
=#20 – A Hidden Life
#19 – And Then We Danced
#18 – Dick Johnson is Dead
#17 – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
#16 – Wolfwalkers
#15 – I’m Thinking of Ending Things
#14 – True History of the Kelly Gang
#13 – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
#12 – Lovers Rock
#11 – Ema
#10 – Mangrove
#9 – Rocks
#8 – 1917
#7 – Bacurau
#6 – Babyteeth
#5 – The Lighthouse

Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2020 to count down our Top 10 films of 2020.