It’s a safe rule of thumb in cinema that nothing good ever happens in a lighthouse: Boats are steered into calamity, people plunge (or are pushed) to seagull-pecked death on the rocks, and let’s not even start on what happened to poor Alicia Vikander when she married a lighthouse keeper. The fourth feature from Welsh genre journeyman Chris Crow, “The Lighthouse” follows squarely in this glum tradition, building a low-level psychodrama around two sparring guardians of the same rickety wooden beacon as adverse weather drives them into danger, madness and worse.
Based on true, tragic events from the early 19th century that led to a critical change in British lighthouse security practice, Crow’s film is a generally capable but oppressively dour chamber piece, its mounting claustrophobia never quite breaking the full horror sweat it threatens — even as the heavens crash and a hellmouth seemingly opens at its delirious but budgetarily constrained climax. Confined to home entertainment formats in most of the U.K. in 2016 — though given theatrical exposure in Wales, where it also received some Welsh BAFTA attention — it finally washes ashore Stateside for a limited theatrical release. VOD, however, is where devotees of faintly Gothic historical thrillers are likeliest to spot this particular lighthouse’s modest beam.
In 1801, on The Smalls — a forbidding cluster of basalt rocks 25 miles off the Welsh coast — the mild-mannered, God-fearing Thomas Howell (Michael Jibson, also one of the film’s writers) arrives to man the remote lighthouse with incumbent keeper Thomas Griffith (Mark Lewis Jones). A job and a Christian name isn’t all the two men have in common, as it emerges that both have guilt-ridden histories of personal tragedy that have driven them to such self-imposed isolation. Yet their coping strategies are fundamentally different: With Griffith, a staunch atheist, placing as much faith in booze as Howell does in the Bible, tensions between them mount to breaking point well before the weather turns accordingly dark and stormy.
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As the squall intensifies, the grim, cryptic warnings from local menfolk (“She don’t want us here, and neither do those bastard rocks”) begin to make sense. Holed up in a growingly unsafe structure, the Thomases shed their hostile inhibitions and descend into a fixed state of drunken, loudly confessional verbal conflict — until gruesome misfortune gives one the upper hand in the argument. Much of “The Lighthouse” unfolds like a climbing-the-walls theatrical two-hander, with crunchy sound design our chief indicator of the furious elements outdoors: “Am I in hell?” Howell wonders aloud at one point, and it doesn’t seem an overly rash assessment of the atmospherics.
Crow and his two fine, Welsh-burred leads commit fully to the anguished, nerve-fraying cause, but their efforts can’t conceal a certain thinness to the dramatic material: The script, co-written in a mostly modern idiom by Crow and Jibson with Paul Bryant, sketches Griffith and Howell merely as clashing male archetypes from the word go, with little authentic personality emerging from behind either man’s grizzled, tragedy-molded mien. Economically deployed effects lend the gathering storm a genuine sense of anxious bluster, but tension and terror are harder to conjure in a narrative this sparse and emotionally one-note.
Interestingly, this particular historical incident was recently adapted into a chamber opera, “For Those in Peril,” by Chicago-based composer Francis Lynch, and it’s not hard to see how the story’s slow-swelling rhythm might be more aptly served in this form. There is an element of stagecraft in the way, working with evidently limited means, Crow’s below-the-line crew prioritize ambient stylization over scale. There’s not much vivid geographical sense of place here, but Tim Dickel’s creaky, close-quarters, often fog-shrouded production design focuses more on externalizing the characters’ addled psychological state, while cinematographer Alexander Metcalfe paints, as one might expect, from a consistently murky, blurring palette of raincloud grays. If you don’t like the weather, to misquote Mark Twain, wait 90 minutes.