CANNES, France—According to the lingo of the entertainment industry, Robert Eggers’s new film The Lighthouse, which premiered at Cannes on Sunday as part of the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, is a “long-awaited” follow-up to The Witch, the director’s innovative debut horror film. Although The Lighthouse has already proved a crowd-pleaser with both the Cannes audience and critics, it’s a less revelatory film than The Witch, a slow-burning shocker that was exceptional for its devotion to period detail and a climactic scene that dared to imply that 17th-century “witch hunts” might not have been fueled purely by paranoia.
The Lighthouse is both less terrifying and more calculated in its effects, especially Eggers’s determination to toy with our expectations of what defines a contemporary horror movie. The chief pleasures to be derived from the film involve its unapologetically manipulative twist on old-fashioned ghost stories (based on an idea by Eggers’s brother Max, the movie aspires to evoke the grandeur of Herman Melville but is more reminiscent of a midlevel Twilight Zone episode that borrows a few notions from bawdy sea shanties) and the ingenious pairing of stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
Dafoe and Pattinson play lighthouse “wickies” (so named because of their original proximity to oil wicks) in an isolated corner of the Maine coast during the 19th century. Dafoe has great fun impersonating a crusty, aging lighthouse keeper named Thomas Wake, a former seaman who exerts tyrannical control over his deputy—Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow, a onetime Canadian “timberman “with a mysterious past.