Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” is a genuine black-and-white horror movie, though viewers should not expect anything as charmingly spooky as Tod Browning’s “Dracula,” James Whale’s “Frankenstein” or Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
“The Lighthouse” is as downright unsettling and as totally disturbing as any black-and-white nightmare since David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.”
It’s inspires three reactions: The first, a wish to un-see what you have just seen. Next, a vow to never see it again. Finally, somewhere down the line, a weird urge to break that vow.
The setup is as simple as can be, though it’s so internalized that even these few details can be refuted: It’s somewhere in the 1890s, and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a man with a shady past, reports for work as an assistant lighthouse keeper.
His new boss is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) a salty old seaman who recites ancient sea poems at will. It’s a ferocious, glinty-eyed performance that may warrant studying in acting classes.
Boots creak on floorboards, drips come from ceilings, and the wind bashes against the salt-water-licked living quarters.
Wake works the newcomer mercilessly during the day and in the evenings plies him with drink. Weirdly, the older man keeps the top-floor beacon locked tight and will not allow Winslow to take a shift up there.
Soon Winslow meets a vindictive and persistent seagull, promising bad omens. Nightmarish visions — writhing tentacles and a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman, the only other person in the cast) — appear.
Then things get really dark.
Like contemporary horror masters Jordan Peele (“Us”), Ari Aster (“Midsommar”) and Jennifer Kent (“The Nightingale”), Eggers — whose last movie was “The Witch” — seems to have shattered the merest hint of sophomore slump. (Perhaps these directors were born with haunted houses full of ideas to draw upon.)
“The Lighthouse,” as with Eggers’ “The Witch,” is so steeped in the past, it feels as if the director time-travels with a camera.
While many horror movies center around recent wrongdoings, Eggers’ films refer to a deeper, more ancient evil, one that has always existed, whether in the universe or in the hearts of flawed humans. His films are closer to Cthulhu than to Cujo.
In addition to using a constraining, sinister black-and-white, Eggers employs a narrow aspect ratio, closer to a square than a rectangle, similar to the shape in Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights,” Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” and movies made in the early days of cinema.
The effect is almost like being inside someone’s head. And the exterior shots in which Winslow performs lonely, demeaning tasks take place against a gray sky and cold rocks hardly provide relief.
In the second half, as a never-ending storm hammers at the door, pungent, wretched horrors, both mental and physical, threaten to ooze through the narrow edges of the picture.
Eggers seems to suggest that isolation, mixed with a little imagination and growing obsession, is a monster capable of breaking the strongest of us. It’s not too much of a stretch to bring the thought up to date, with all of us so connected, but at the same time so alone behind our glowing screens.
In a sense, we’re all our own individual lighthouse keepers.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman
Written by: Max Eggers, Robert Eggers
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes