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Grand Guignol, Early Cinema and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse

The very isolation of lighthouses and their straddling of that hazy, liminal space between land and sea grant them a unique impact when it comes to their symbolic potency in storytelling. Not quite ‘at sea’ but still not wholly ‘on land’, the intensity of the ocean’s looming violence that the light seeks to protect seafarers from, helping them avoid crashing into land, grants a broader significance to tales about those who keep the light burning when their own safety – and grasp of reality – is put under the microscope. 

In Welsh maritime history, the tragic real-life events at the Smalls Lighthouse in 1801 just off the Marloes Peninsula in Pembrokeshire has become the stuff of legend, and the threads of its influence can be felt in both practical policy changes and in broader mythology surrounding the dangers of lighthouse keeping itself in psychological as much as physical terms. The basic story is this: Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith were two lighthouse keepers who did not get along. After Griffith’s accidental death, despite policy dictating that Howell was to dispose of the body in the sea, his fears that he would be accused of Griffith’s murder proved too much, and he decided instead to tether a hastily constructed coffin containing the corpse to the outside shelf of the lighthouse itself. The harsh winds destroyed the coffin with little effort, thus rendering Griffith’s supposedly gruesome rotting corpse a somewhat macabre welcome to the service boat that arrived many months later, who discovered that Howell had not only gone insane, but that his hair had turned completely white. Based upon this incident, until the shift to automated lighthouse in the 1980s it became standard practice that all lighthouses be manned by a roster of three lighthouse keepers from this point onwards to avoid a repeat of such an incident. 

While the Smalls Lighthouse incident tragedy was explicitly adapted to the screen in 2016’s The Lighthouse by Chris Crow, much of the dark power of this story can be felt in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, his highly-anticipated follow-up to 2015’s The Witch. Like his debut feature, Eggers’ painstaking research and collaborations with exceptional acting talent in particular – this time the impressive double-whammy of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson – create a unique horror tale that weaves effective genre thrills with a highly detailed portrait of a particular historical moment. Shifting from the early 17th century horrors of the New England witch hunts to the late 19th century, The Lighthouse was shot on location at Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, just off a small fishing town called Yarmouth. Building their eponymous lighthouse from scratch based on Eggers’ now-signature extensive research, the cast and crew had to contend with harsh conditions and the practical challenges of working on a somewhat isolated set as they filmed, factors which can certainly be felt within the film itself. With Dafoe in an award-worthy turn as elder, grizzled alcoholic power-freak Thomas Wake, his increasing pushing of the younger, more fragile Ephraim Winslow (played just as impressively by Pattinson) both physically and mentally finds their two men’s complex relationship in a seemingly inevitable downward spiral, compounded by a vicious storm, superstition and a turn to drinking kerosene once the booze runs out. 

Shot in the old Movietone ratio of 1.19:1, this format is synonymous with films made between 1926 to 1932 as the film industry was making the shift to sound movies. That Eggars’ film almost looks like a square recalls a very specific moment in film history where the size of the image segment of the film (the frame) had to be reduced from the previously dominant 4:3 aspect ratio to allow space for the optical soundtrack. The opening moments of The Lighthouse recall this period of transition to sound with little interest in subtlety. Much has been made by critics about how the dialogue of The Lighthouse has been heavily influenced by Moby-Dick author Herman Melville and (perhaps more obscurely) American author and poet Sarah Orne Jewett, whose writings about the Maine coastline in the late 19th century solidified her reputation as a key figure in the American literary regionalist style, marked by its affinity for good old fashioned ‘local colour’. But while these influences certainly come to the fore once the characters start talking – and talking and talking and talking (notably only after the first sip of boozedrink) – The Lighthouse begins with very little spoken language at all. Rather, the soundtrack is full of other sounds that echo the marvel of the shift to movie sound; of the roar of the ocean and the sound of horns as their boat arrives to the isolated lighthouse of the title, of screaming seabirds and the howling wind, heads being bumped on too-low ceilings and consequent grunts of discomfort, of farting and the thin, metallic echo of pissing in a pot.

The ‘ye olde’ quality of lighthouse-centric stories are far from a new fascination in cinema. Lighthouses were all the rage in early cinema especially, and that legacy continued across screen history, particularly in horror. Eggers’ film largely culminates at the intersection of these two traditions, yet avoids ever feeling cliched. Stemming back to the early 19th century, family-friendly dramas, romances and even spy thrillers were often built around lighthouses and lighthouse keeping in a range of films including  J. Searle Dawley’s The Keeper of the Light from 1909 and his later The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter in 1912. That year was a big one for lighthouse cinema with other films including Charles Raymond’s The Great Anarchist Mystery, Frank E. Montgomery’s The Girl of the Lighthouse and Sydney Northcote’s The Smuggler’s Daughter of Anglesea, followed in 1913 by examples such as Barry O’Neil’s The Guiding Light and Burton L. King’s The Grey Sentinel. In 1917, Henry Edwards’ Broken Threads was released, other key films including – but certainly not limited to – Paul Scardon’s False Kisses (1921), Malcolm St. Clair’s Rin Tin Tin fronted family-friendly bootlegger thriller The Lighthouse By the Sea in 1924, Bud Barsky’s The Coast Patrol (1925), and J. Stuart Blackton’s 1926 film Bride of the Storm (a short story by James Francis Dwyer adapted to the screen by the director’s daughter, Marian Constance Blackton). Renowned French filmmaker, theorist and author Jean Epstein also famously demonstrated an obsession with the sea in general across some of his key works, lighthouses specifically a central motif in 1929’s Finis Terræ and in his later sound film, 1947’s Le Tempestaire.

This broader shift to talkies continued to showcase lighthouses as key sites of action in movies such as Harry Pollard’s Undertow (1930), Michael Delmer’s Lighthouse Love (1932), Michael Powell’s The Phantom Light (1935), Roy Boulting’s Thunder Rock (1942), Frank Wisbar’s Lighthouse (1947), and Paul Czinner’s The Way of Lost Souls starring early cinema icon Pola Negri, (originally made as a silent film in 1929 but released the following year with a post-production soundtrack added). Lighthouses were far from a solely English-language fascination, either, considering movies like Maurice Mariaud’s Os Faroleiros (1922) from Portugal, Ivar Kåge’s Där fyren blinkar (1924) from Denmark, Ragnar Hyltén-Cavallius’s Vingar kring fyren (1938) from Sweden, Jose Climaco’s Parola (1949) from the Philippines , Keisuke Kinoshita’s Times of Joy and Sorrow (1957) from Japan, Kim Mook’s South Korean spy thriller Conditions of a Virgin from 1968. 

Lighthouses feature significantly in children-friendly movies such as David Butler’s Captain January from 1936 starring Shirley Temple, Disney’s Donald Duck-fronted Lighthouse Keeping (1946) and of course Don Chaffey’s Pete’s Dragon (1977). This spreads to the small screen, too, with the cult long-running Australian children’s programme Round the Twist. Lighthouses have featured on the small screen in everything from Doctor Who to The Goodies, most recently providing a key symbolic location in the French Netflix horror series Marianne. John Carpenter’s 1980 classic The Fog is virtually synonymous with lighthouse horror, with other lighthouse-centric horror movies including (but not limited to) Irvin Berwick’s The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959), Bert I. Gordon’s Tormented (1960), Steve Sekely’s The Day of the Triffids (1962), Jim O’Connolly’s Tower of Evil (1972), Chris Bearde’s Hysterical (1983), Susan Shadburne’s Shadow Play (1986), Simon Hunter’s Dead of Night (1999), Sabrina Mansfield’s The Shadows (2011), Andrew Wiest’s The Forlorned (2017), Xavier Gens’s Cold Skin (2017), and Corrie Greenop’s Dark Beacon (2017). Aislinn Clarke of The Devil’s Doorway (2018) fame made her film debut with the 2012 short The Lighthouse Keepers, a black-and-white silent short horror film that explicitly recalls similar early cinema traditions as Eggers.

The title of Clarke’s film is an important one in other ways when approaching Eggers’ latest film. Made by revered French filmmaker Jean Grémillon in 1929, his film Gardiens de phare (The Lighthouse Keepers), is an important precursor to The Lighthouse in both its style, narrative, and generic origins. Renowned less for his association with genre cinema than his documentary-like cinematic poetics, Gardiens de phare was Grémillon’s final silent movie and only his second feature film. Much of his background in documentary filmmaking that marked his introduction to the film industry can be felt in the way that Grémillon loving represents the ocean itself, particularly that surrounding Brittany where he shot many of his films and spent some time as a child (Epstein too had a passion for this region, depicted nowhere perhaps more lovingly than his 1931 documentary short The Sea of Ravens, which also lovingly features a lighthouse). 

There’s clearly a deep fascination in Gardiens de phare with the drama and aesthetics of the waves themselves as much as the more over-the-top plot details (this film alone provides almost instant evidence as to why Grémillon is renowned as a key figure in both poetic realism and pictorialist naturalism). The story follows a father and son – Yvon (Geymond Vital) and his father (Paul Victor Fromet) – who leave their homes and Yvon’s true love Marie (Genica Athanasiou) and her mother (Gabrielle Fontan) – to work on an isolated lighthouse. Through flashbacks it is revealed that Yvon was bitten by a rabid dog before departing, and the core drama of the film follows his subsequent descent into madness, forcing his father to take drastic action as his heart breaks for his beloved son. Alongside this, his father must maintain the lighthouse and vagain recalling Grémillon’s background in documentary filmmaking – much of the film is spent showcasing the more nuts-and-bolts, day-to-day duties of a lighthouse keeper. 

Gardiens de phare is a significant film to consider in direct relation to Eggers’ The Lighthouse in terms not just of its basic narrative that hinges on the requisite isolation of two men in this specific context resulting in insanity, but also that inbecause the origins of Grémillon’s films stem directly from the famous French theatre of horror, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. Based on a play written for the notorious theatre founded by Oscar Méténier in 1897, Gardiens de phare was originally written for the stage in 1905 by Paul Autier and Paul Cloquemin, their only Grand Guignol play but one that does not lack a significant legacy; aside from Grémillon’s movie, the play had been previously adapted to the screen in Turkey by Muhsin Ertuğrul in 1923 as the silent film Kız Kulesinde Bir Facia. This is certainly not the only film about lighthouses to be adapted from text to screen; apart from J. Stuart Blackton’s previously mentioned Bride of the Storm, Kevin Billington’s The Light at the Edge of the World (1971) was adapted from Jules Verne’s 1905 novel of the same name and despite its unclear connection to the original text from which it takes its title, Benjamin Cooper’s 2016 film Edgar Allan Poe’s Lighthouse Keeper is perhaps also worth a mention here. 

But – as its final scene alone more than forcefully underscores – this explicit association to the Grand Guignol is in many ways just as fundamental to Eggers’ The Lighthouse as his its status as effectively amovie is a love-letter to early cinema in more general terms. Grémillon’s depiction of Yves’s descent into madness is marked by highly subjective camera work, bringing his fever dream to life. This is, notably, a key shift from the original play, despite the reputation of the Grand Guignol for lurid, visceral spectacle. In their 2002 book Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror, Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson republished Auteier and Cloquemin’s play in full, noting that since its first staging it became a popular favourite of the Grand Guignol repertoire until the early 1930s. As they note, the play “does not require visual special effects: all its emphasis is on accomplished and intense acting to achieve a mood of claustrophobic  terror and a double climax of horror”. They continue, “The horror within The Lighthouse Keepers operates on a number of different levels and in each case it is exacerbated by the effective symbol of the lighthouse, which represents claustrophobia, isolation and a haven surrounded by danger (the elements), which may penetrate the defences at any moment”.  

Noting that lighthouses were far from rare in Grand Guignol plays (other key texts include Marcelle Maurette’s The Love Tower in 1938 and Alfred Machard’s gloriously titled Orgy at the Lighthouse in 1956), much of what they describe here applies as strongly to Eggers’ The Lighthouse as it does Grémillon’s more direct film adaptation.  While the relationship between Pattinson’s Winsolw and Dafoe’s Wake contains echoes of maritime tragedies from centuries ago as much as it does the father-son dynamics of Auteier and Cloquemin’s play, what remains clear is that the dark, foreboding symbolism of the lighthouse as a space where a particular kind of danger – both physical and psychological – can blossom remains as potent in 2019 as it did in 1801 when Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith met such a sad, horrific fate at the Smalls Lighthouse. 

The Lighthouse plays the London Film Festival from 5 October and will open in cinemas in the US from October 18, 2019. 

About Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, author, programming consultant and research academic from Melbourne, Australia. She has written seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland 2014), Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2017), The Hitcher (Arrow, 2018), Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and a forthcoming book called 1000 Women in Horror. Alexandra has published well over 100 interviews, essays, articles, liner notes and reviews, over twenty book chapters, recorded a stack of home entertainment commentaries and video essays, and has co-edited a number of books, She is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

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