Argento April: Deep Red (1974)

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Deep Red or Profundo Russo (Italian title) is the cinematic equivalent of soaring. It’s a film that illustrates Dario Argento is not merely working within the horror genre, but understands it so profoundly that he can bend it to his will and in the process the audience too.

Much like his debut feature (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Deep Red is a Giallo set in Rome. However, this time the film is about a British pianist- Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) who finds himself thrust into a murder mystery, after witnessing his neighbour- Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril) being brutally killed through her apartment window.

Watching Deep Red is akin to waking from a long unwinding nightmare at 3.00 am in the morning. There’s a slow and haunting quality that pervades the film as the camera takes on a mysterious omnipresent quality, slowing panning around the surroundings with predatory precision.

In Crystal Plumage, Argento mixed opulence and terror. In Deep Red, the director is concerned with images of innocence that are corrupted and transformed into something nasty. The opening moments (via a low angle shot) depict a seemingly picturesque Christmas display. However, this is soon ruined by a murder (depicted via shadows) and a bloody knife, which falls close to where the grisly act is being witnessed.

Argento brings this quality of corrupting innocence throughout the picture. There are frequent shots that frame toys and strange looking objects as omens of the carnage that’s about to occur. A particularly freaky image is the black gloved murderer picking up a figurine of a baby.

Less impressive are some of the human elements of the story. The relationship between Daly and kooky reporter- Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) is less Howard Hawkes in its charm and more a Punch and Judy show (involving casual male chauvinism and childish antics).

Despite the recurring theme of innocence being corrupted in the imagery, I wish Argento had explored this more in the characters. There’s a tantalising prospect of the theme playing out by the killer being Daly’s friend- Carlo (Gabriele Lavia). This aspect would have made sense, given who we find out is the boy who picks up the knife in the flashback scene. However, the film opts for a far less interesting reveal that feels like the ticking of a plot point then a genuine revelation.

There’s a scene when Daly is talking to Carlo early on. They’re both dwarfed by the scenery as Argento employs a wide angle shot. The moment embodies how the director feels about characterisation and how it’s secondary to the cinematic framing of the experience. Deep Red is flawed in this area along with occasional spots of plotting the mystery.

However, there’s something exciting about Argento finding his voice within the horror genre and melding it to his heightened sensibilities. This is even apparent with his first collaboration with Goblin, who create a chilling rock infused score. Deep Red is the sort of film that coasts on its cinematic verve and technique. For the devout and curious, it’s an enriching exercise in horror movie making. For everyone else, it may be an indulgent chore.

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Argento April: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1971)

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Loosely defined: Giallo is a popular 20th century genre that specialises in mysteries, thrillers and occasionally supernatural horror. The Italian word translates to yellow and the genre gets its name from the yellow coloured paperback novels that dominated bookshelves in post war Italy. While there were many Giallo movies before 1970, Dario Argento popularised the genre (with Crystal Plumage) and kick started its resurgence in post 70s Italian cinema.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is about an American writer, Sam Dalmas (Tony Mustane) whose been on a long holiday in Italy. Grappled with writer’s block as he’s about to leave the country: Sam’s world is turned upside down when he witnesses a woman in an art gallery being stabbed. Soon after, the writer finds himself in an investigation and race against time with a black gloved figure, whose been on a murderous rampage of local women.

Crystal Plumage’s greatest trick is its distortion. Much like Sam is convinced that he’s seeing the opening attack in one way, the audience is likewise led to believe that what we’re seeing is real. Part of this comes from genre expectation and who we typically see as the victim in similar stories. Argento also brings this aspect to some of the sequences.

One has Sam being chased by a gunman wearing a yellow jacket (an amusing reference to the genre’s roots). Sam eventually tracks the lone man to a sports convention where the majority of people are wearing yellow jackets.

In contrast to other Argento films I’ve seen, the direction is less bombastic and assaultive. Instead, the director in his first film favours opulence and dread. Many scenes have the characters slowly realising their impending doom in lavish surroundings. One scene that comes to mind is when a woman is walking back up to her apartment. As she climbs the staircase, the lights start to go out until she is met with complete darkness and has to resort to using a match.

Argento’s use of the top down shot that shows all the staircases aligned looks like a surreal panting. It evokes tension and the pervasive nature of the killer. Ennio Morricone’s eclectic score made up of gloomy bells, low male choral chants and a moaning woman provide the scene with its electrifying horror.

Despite this, the film’s central problem comes from the handling of Sam’s character. Conceptually, it’s fascinating to see someone who starts out as helpless in aiding a victim of the black gloved killer, becomes obsessed and end up helping to bring the notorious figure to justice. However, I don’t get any sense is grappling with anything (other then trying to remember details about the killer) and instead strung from one plot element to the next.

With Sam being a writer whose is in the midst of writer’s block, it would have been interesting to see him wanting to stay because it inspires him to write again. Or he has to solve the mystery, due to wanting to write a story about his experiences. Instead, it just feels like he stays because it’s convenient to the plot.

As it stands, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a scorching debut from Dario Argento. He plucks the strings of the Giallo genre with finesse, a black comedic streak (particularly with some of the secondary characters) and subversive wit. However, I can’t help but feel that the film could have soared and become something far more interesting, particularly with the exploration of Sam and his further entrenchment into the central mystery.

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Editorial: Intro to Argento April

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April sees the start of themed months and I could not think of a better filmmaker then Dario Argento, to begin this series of blog posts. Despite being into Italian horror cinema, Argento has fallen of my radar compared to other directors in the genre. Mario Bava has always felt like the most talented and interesting: working within several sub-genres and beguiling audiences with his feverish paintbox aesthetic.

On the other end of the scale is Lucio Fulci. His work has been purely base, feeling like adaptations of provocative B movie posters with hyperbolic statements. While his movies don’t entirely hang together (narratively), they can be relied on for having moments that horrify, strike and linger.

While Argento’s contribution to cinema is invaluable: he was one of the screenwriters of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and the producer of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), I don’t have enough of a sense of him as a director. I’m curious to see how his ascetic compares to his peers in the genre.

From Argento’s extensive filmography, I’ve only seen Suspiria (1977) and Opera (1987).  So, in terms of films to watch, I’m spoilt for choice. Below are the movies for the month along with a brief comment and where you can watch them.

Movie 1: Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1971)

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What better place to start then Argento’s first film, I’ve always been interested about this one. Crystal Plumage is available to rent or buy from Google Play, Prime Video and iTunes.

Movie 2: Deep Red (1975)

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Other then Suspiria, this seems to be Argento’s most celebrated film. I’m intrigued to see if it lives up to the hype. Deep Red is available to rent or buy from Google Play, Prime Video and iTunes.

Movie 3: The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

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I wanted to feature an obscure and lesser known film in the line up, cue: The Stendhal Syndrome. You can stream the title on Shudder.com.

Movie 4: Dracula (2014)

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Dario Argento adapting Bram Stoker’s famous novel and ostensibly making a vampire movie, I’m all in. You can rent or buy the film from Google Play, Prime Video and iTunes.

In the meantime, what film intrigues you the most? Which Argento films have you seen? Let me know in the comments below.

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Editorial: My Top Five Lockdown Films

5) Young Frankenstein 

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Doctor Frederick Frankenstein’s frequent attempts to keep a sense of cool and clinical detachment is the perfect embodiment of our pendulum swinging emotional state during this hard time. Come for Gene Wilder’s hilarious and touching performance. Stay for Mel Brooks’s loving homage to the Universal Monster Movies.

 

4) 28 Days Later

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While the early scenes of an empty and ghostly London are an eerie echo of our current times: Danny Boyle’s transcendent genre film is an even more pressing reminder of the fast acting nature of infection and the bleak places it can takes us as human beings.

3) Excalibur 

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Times like this call for a vintage epic to watch. While there are many from Gone with the Wind to The Ten Commandments, I’m recommending John Boorman’s cradle to the grave story of King Arthur. Boasting sumptuous cinematography, an otherworldly performance from Nicol Williamson and a rousing score: Excalibur is a fascinating precursor to Games of Thrones.

2) Before Sunrise

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In our post social distancing world, Before Sunrise seems like a godsend. Richard Linklater’s depiction of two young people falling in love while walking around the streets of Vienna is a timely reminder of the importance of human connection and its ability to  easily form with the right person. While it’s a no-brainier to recommend the entire Before Trilogy, Sunrise has this quality of two people who have their entire lives ahead of them. This provides the film with an endearing optimism and a poignancy due to the people that Celine and Jessie will become.

1) Mulholland Drive

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Out of all the films to watch at the moment, I’m most drawn to the ones that have eluded me or caused me to ponder their meaning long after the credits have rolled. Mulholland Drive is one of those experiences. Originally starting life as a television pilot, it’s interesting to see how the episode has morphed into a cinematic effort. The movie greatly embodies David Lynch’s juxtaposition of the rosy portrait of 50s Americana and the darker impulses preserving that picture (made even more meaningful as the film is about Hollywood). Its mystery, memorable minor characters and Naomi Watts’s central performance will always keep me coming back and trying to figure it out.

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Review: The Mandalorian Chapter 1 (2020)

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The first episode of the highly anticipated series- The Mandalorian had a quiet UK theatrical release a couple weeks ago (via Cineworld Cinemas) So, it seemed like fair game to cover it for the blog.

Television pilots are funny creations. In some ways they could represent a show attempting to find its identity as its oddities and kinks are slowly ironed out as a series goes on. Or they could be fascinating prisms to view a show’s tone, story and eventual appeal.

The Mandalorian falls squarely in the second category. The pilot is a fresh, exciting and engrossing new lens to view the Star Wars franchise. After making quick work of a several bounties, the title character- The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) is hired by Werner Herzog’s mysterious character- “The Client”, who tasks him with finding and protecting a 50 year old individual.

Part of the episode’s success is its world building that’s always been a staple of the franchise. There are many long takes of the Mandalorian walking through streets and going about his usual day to day business. These give us a tantalising glimpse of a post Return of the Jedi world, where few people give a second thought to some of the title character’s actions.

At the same time, the episode takes usual Star Wars elements and filters them through a unique lens. George Lucas’s infamous directing mantra “Faster, more intense” is used to illustrate the title character’s efficiency at his Bounty Hunting. In an extended sequence,  carbon freezing is unveiled like a shocking discovery in a Gothic horror movie as opposed to a heartbreaking moment of pathos. In the same vein, the Stormtrooper’s first appearance has a ghostly presence as though the title character has stumbled upon them in a dream.

But director Dave Filoni (who makes his live action directing debut with this episode) is also quite playful with the material. There’s one gag of the Mandalorian dismissing a new speeder with a droid in favour of a old, banged up vehicle to get him to his ship. The joke embodies the franchise’s constant battle between its hard worn and shiny space aesthetic. And the main character’s Mythrol bounty, whose seems like Nathan Lane doing a comedic skit in blue makeup is a wonderful reminder of the franchise’s riffing spirit.

Filoni’s best directional moment is a scene that has The Mandalorian reflecting on his past while a solid Imperial bar of silver is melted down into Beskar armor. The scene is particularly striking when Filoni superimposes moments from when he was a child (attempting to escape a war with his parents). Three blue flamed stripes reflect on his helmet and could represent his fury at his circumstances. The moment is a great visual echo to the scenes in the movies where masked characters appear all too human in their struggles.

Pedro Pascal is impressive in a near silent performance that relies on a precise stillness and efficiency in his physicality. Through the course of the episode, these qualities slowly fade to illustrate the character’s uncertainty (particularly when attempting to tame a Foal). However, Taika Waititi steals the episode with a fantastically deadpan turn as a droid bounty hunter (IG-11) who always seems eager to self destruct.

While it’s too early to call out themes, I will say that there’s some fascinating bread crumbs in the episode to guess at a few. There’s a sense that the title character is going to become a local myth as he attempts to clear a territory of mercenaries and other troublemakers (alluded to by Kuiil who grants passage to the title character’s mission area). In this way, the mythical staple of the series is retained.

However, this idea could become larger as Werner Herzog’s Client hints at the restoration to the natural order of things after the Empire’s tyranny. With what is glimpsed about the Mandorlarians, they seem like an underground tribe who are considered myths and legends.

Perhaps, with the central character’s actions and Kuiil’s prediction, the title character and his group go from fabled characters of folk lore to known figures that inspire a galaxy to hope again (albeit on a small scale). Either way, it will be interesting to see how showrunner, Jon Favreau, plays with internal myth and a sense of innocence (with Baby Yoda) in upcoming episodes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Editorial: COVID-19 and My Future Blog Posts

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This week has seen a complete closure of cinemas, gyms, pubs, coffee shops and many other public places. It hardly needs reminding that COVID-19 has changed the fabric of our lives and way we do things. With the closure of major cinemas chains, reviewing new releases is going to be a dicey proposition. However, I’m taking this as a golden opportunity to finally commit to blog posts that I’ve put on the back burner.

To that end, I will finally get to themed months. This will comprise of an introductory post that briefly outlines what films I will be reviewing. I will let you know what platforms you could watch each film on. At the moment, I’m aiming to watch and review four films with a post a week. I might do a ending post reflecting on the director or genre of movies that I’ve reviewed, but I’m undecided at this point on that post.

I have also been working on some posts that focus on Film Music. These have the toughest to write as it’s not something I have much experience in writing about. But I promise to post them soon.

Along the way, there will be the usual sprinkling of top fives and reviews of new releases (if they’re released digitally). And stay tuned, there’s an upcoming review that I’m excited about. I do hope you can join me for my upcoming themed months. We’re all going through a rocky patch but we can unite over our love of movies. In the meantime, I hope you all stay safe and keep well.

How has your blog been affected by COVID-19? What kind of posts are you doing now? Let me know in the comments below.

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250th Post: Why I Continue Blogging

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Between you and me, the statement of why I continue blogging should be something of a affirmation to a blogging mid life crisis (500 posts and upwards). However, the COVID-19 pandemic has put everything into perspective. Not only are we questioning our everyday provisions but also our activities, safety and the health of our loved ones like never before. But on the lower rung of those essential concerns, this sentence has been nagging me like a beastly predator, circling its feeble prey with a maddening obsession.

The answer is seemingly easy, because I love it. If you want a longer response then strap yourselves in. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve quite got the hang of blogging. Sure, by definition, I’m putting out an opinion on a semi regular basis. But I’ve always had this perception that blogging is akin to someone who finishes a race, frantically types about their experiences and hits send before the sweat dissipates.

I’m not like that. I take my time. Part of this comes from wanting to preserve the experience. Whenever I see a movie, I’m not satisfied with leaving it on the sidewalk of life and mumbling a few words about it. Instead, I want to get to grips with it. Sometimes that can be a right pain in the proverbial ass. But at other times, it can be rewarding.

Okay. Big pretentious speech time. If you’d rather go wrestle for toilet rolls at your nearest Tesco, then I understand. But for those of you still awake in the back row, here goes nothing. To me, going to watch a film is akin to seeing a large projected dream for two hours. With this in mind, writing about a cinematic experience is similar to writing about a dream. While watching, certain things will hit your subconscious and it’s the writer’s job to untangle those elements and give voice to them. When you put it that way, film writing can sound like a chore.

But the experience has never ceased to fascinate and hook me. Even when you feel like pulling your hair out because you can’t quite come up with the right words for something. Or nothing is coming at all. There’s always an inherent trust that something will come and those momentary revelations are like unlocking an incredibly intricate puzzle.

I also love writing about film because it’s a precise form of writing. You have to pinpoint exactly what is or not working and then pull from the film to support your point. In this way, you’re like a lawyer who is putting together a case for the court room.

There’s also a constant striving in Film Writing. Cinema is still a relatively young medium with its own language. I’m always trying my best to watch and understand it (via discussion about the filmmaking and how it reinforces theme and aesthetic). But there are also the other elements: acting, film scoring and cinematography that always keeps you on your toes insofar as consideration of a film is concerned.

Above all, writing and by extension blogging is where I feel most comfortable. It’s my way of coming out on a stage and delivering a monologue for a certain amount of time. It’s personal, fun and always engaging. For those of you who’ve read, commented and liked my posts, over the years, I thank you. It’s sincerely appreciated. And for those who have fallen asleep, I hope you’ve had pleasant dreams.

In the coming days, I will get into how COVID-19 is effecting my future content. But for now, what keeps you blogging? Let me know in the comments below.

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Brief Consideration: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

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In a decade that’s seen the comic book movie genre blossom into a mainstream staple, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a timely examination of the genre’s roots. The film is about Professor William Marston (Luke Evens), who creates Wonder Woman based on his polyamorous relationship with wife- Elizabeth Holloway (Rebecca Hall) and young psychology student- Olive Bryne (Bella Heathcote).

On the surface, the film is a staunch defence of comics with the framed storyline of Marston appearing before the Child Study Association of America, to answer for frequent images of bondage and violence. However, the film’s true focus is in the central relationship between William, Elizabeth and Olive. Writer/Director Angela Robinson subverts the male gaze by rooting the titillating aspects of the relationship in the characters’ emotions. One scene where Olive has to punish a sorority sister by smacking her with a wooden block is a darting tennis match of stolen glances between Elizabeth and Olive, cementing their mutual attraction for one another.

Rebecca Hall steals the limelight in a Katherine Hepburn inspired performance, dominating the screen with a sharp wit and occasionally chilly demeanour. However, Hall’s best moments are silent instances of introspection, whether it’s realising her place in the relationship or reflecting on how long she’s known William.

The screenplay is brimming with ideas and is given free reign to discuss them in a frank and open manner. The film posits Wonder Woman as a heightened fantasy of a world where women are allowed to be powerful and dominant. But it also respects their femininity and desire to earn a living in a humble role (via Wonder Woman’s alter ego- Diana and her job as a secretary).

In essence, Wonder Woman is a reconciliation of its female characters who represent two ways of being a woman in contemporary society. In this way, the film speaks to the power of comic books as a medium to educate, but also to illustrate a better world then ours.  

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Review: The Invisible Man (2020)

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HG Wells’s The Invisible Man has always been a story with limitless potential. The novel mixes a bemused comedic spirit (courtesy of some of the people who encounter the title character) and a palpable fear of its central scientist whose trying to make himself visible again. The result is a story that’s a metaphor for the dehumanisation of man after no longer being seen by anyone, and having the freedom to carry out any crime.

Leigh Whannell’s (of Saw and Insidious fame) retelling is an effective exercise in gaslighting and distillation of the horror genre. The new adaptation is about Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) who escapes from an abusive partner, Adrian Griffin, whose a talented scientist in the field of optics. However, one day, he seemingly appears to have committed suicide. Initially relieved and hoping to get her life back on track, Kass is horrified to find that her abusive ex-boyfriend may be alive (after some uncanny signs of his whereabouts begin to resurface).

In other cinematic adaptations, the audience is always made to revel in the title character’s antics, whether its Claude Rains’s gleeful display of his abilities in the Universal Monster movie (1933) or Paul Verhoeven’s sleazy and complicit camera moves in Hollow Man. In contrast, Whannell makes us fear Griffin with a considerable amount of economy and smart choices.

The opening sequence depicts Cecilia’s escape from Griffin’s island home. Set to the central sound of thrashing waves and filmed with patient long shots: the prolonged scene is a nerve-shattering experience, illustrating the title character’s considerable power and influence over the central heroine.

Whannell dims the focus of Griffin and the ethical implications of his scientific discovery in favour of the effect he has on others. By doing this, the story becomes a fascinating metaphor for gaslighting as Cecilia’s life is disoriented due to Griffin’s reappearances after his death. The film’s most horrific moments are the nails being hammered on the coffin of Cecilia’s sanity, often making her feel weak and distraught. At the same time, invisibility becomes a stand-in for abusive relationships.

It’s wielded to separate Cecilia from her friends and family. It also illustrates how you can lose a sense of self in a relationship because of the control the dominating partner has over you. But above all, the invisibility carries weight in showing the hard truth of domestic abuse and how it’s largely unseen by society, much like many of Cecilia’s experiences in the film.

Elizabeth Moss delivers on the promise of her brief appearance in Jordon Peele’s Us with a captivating central performance. Aside from portraying fragility with believability: Moss’s most striking moments are the extended monologues that have her questioning why Griffin is after her. They illustrate the character’s vulnerability and resilience as well as Moss’ uncanny ability to switch between both emotional states.

Despite the film’s subject matter, Whannell offsets this with playful direction. Many of the sequences end up being upmarket variants of Paranormal Activity’s patiently composed single-take shots. Consequently, the audience is actively engaged in finding things amiss with the surroundings. In his best moments, Whannell plays the audience like a piano by cinematically building up to big scares and deflating them with amusing imagery. A smash cut to a plate of breakfast after night time terrors is a particular highlight.

The Invisible Man is a fresh and engrossing interpretation of a beloved story. It’s made by someone who understands the genre’s blurred lines between horror and comedy as well as the victim and killer vantage points. The fact that it’s never satisfied with indulging in one of these exclusively is remarkable. But it’s even more commendable for illustrating the genre’s ability to depict fears that go unseen in real life.

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Review: The Lighthouse (2020)

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In 2016, Robert Eggers impressed the world with The Witch: a meticulous period film, mixing Christian import and feverish paranoia in its telling of a New England family, succumbing to the follies of their puritanical existence. The film remains one of the great champions of the “elevated horror” sub-genre that’s been in vogue this decade: emphasising ambiguity with its supernatural aspects, which would be a given in most conventional horror movies.

Egger’s follow up effort- The Lighthouse is an altogether a different experience, beguiling in its surreal imagery and mad capped in its performances: the film cements Eggers as a director who’s able to chart lengthy excursions into the dark corners of the human psyche with flair and ease.

Ostensibly, The Lighthouse is a two-man play. Robert Pattinson plays a quiet and unassuming man called Ephraim Winslow. He’s under contract for six weeks to work for veteran lighthouse keeper- Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Winslow’s time with Wake is tough and swift. However, the sanity of both men is tested when a raging storm strands them indefinitely.

Visually, The Lighthouse appears to be a film that’s been recovered from the silent era. Shot in black and white with a 1.19:1 (19:16) aspect ratio, the film matches the cinematic ascetic of many silent films from the 1920s. The aspect ratio also functions as a point of claustrophobia, boxing in the characters to their desolate surroundings. But Jarin Blaschke’s Oscar-nominated cinematography shines in the long shots where the characters appear infinitesimal compared to their surroundings.

With its persistent mechanised roars that sound like Godzilla in tone, the titular Lighthouse truly comes alive with impressive sound design. While Mark Korven’s unsettles with a powerfully ominous score that sounds like a mashup between a Bernard Herrman and Vangelis score.

Since Twilight, it’s been fascinating to see Robert Pattinson’s versatility as an actor, trading in leading man status for unassuming character actor performances. Initially appearing as aloof as Buster Keaton and vocally like Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood: Pattinson’s performance as Winslow is a glorious go for broke display that fully unshackles him from his shiny vampire status. On paper, Thomas Wake seems like a character you would find in the great big book of cliches. However, Dafoe imbues Wake with Shakespearean weight, delivering his barnstorming monologues as though he’s reciting lines from King Lear.

Thematically, Egger’s second feature is about the unravelling of an individual, proving that beneath the veneer of respectability and innocence, there’s something altogether starker and sinister. At first, Winslow is a quiet and untroubled individual, who through the course of the film is revealed to be a brash and uncaring man, who wallows in his lust and sorrow.

Similarly to Anya Taylor Joy’s Thomasin in the Witch, one could read Winslow’s descent into madness as a result of supernatural forces acting through other people. In the Witch, it was the satanic influence of Black Philip plying Thomasin’s younger siblings minds with poisonous thoughts. In the Lighthouse, Wake acts as the instigator with superstitious tales and a direct warning to stay away from the top of the Lighthouse.

In this way, the film is a tense and maddening morality play about the dangers of rubbing someone’s nose in about their established customs and lore. At the same time, the film also works within the framework of horror movie morality, where an unlikable person brutally gets their comeuppance.

However you choose to interpret The Lighthouse, there’s no denying it’s power to enthral and disturb. It’s a film that does not walk the tight rope of convention but instead runs at its own frantic and strange pace.

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