Creepy things happen in and around lighthouses, as we know from the Vincent Price radio drama Three Skeleton Key, John Carpenter’s The Fog and probably Poe’s Lighthouse novella, if he had time to finish it. However, this sea story is particularly unsettling, because it is pretty faithfully based on a true story. The Smalls Lighthouse gets treated as both a classy historical and a horror movie about creepy madness in Chris Crow’s The Lighthouse (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.
“Lightkeeping is quiet business” Louis tells Jean in Three Skeleton, but that is especially true for Thomas Griffiths and Thomas Howell, two lightkeepers who could hardly stand each other’s company. Alas, they were literally stuck together in that reef-bound lighthouse, due to their terms of employment. They could muddle through under ordinary circumstances, but there was nothing ordinary about the months-long squall that cut them off from the outside world and fresh supplies.
Two Thomases confined in a claustrophobic setting, under mounting stress is a recipe for disaster. As their hostilities become more pronounced, we learn the secrets from their past that make them so miserable in their current position. Eventually, they finally break open the “mercy” crate of booze, at which point they really start to lose their grasp.
Lighthouse is not exactly a horror film per se, but it definitely takes a macabre turn. This is definitely a film infused with as much about madness as any conventional psycho killer movie. Yet, Crow and co-screenwriters Paul Bryant and Michael Jibson give their characters their full due, forgiving their sins, even when the Thomases refuse to forgive themselves. This is harrowing stuff, no doubt about it.
Jibson and Mark Lewis Jones are terrific as Howell and Griffiths, respectively, generating all kinds of tension either cold-shouldering or snarling at each other. This film is essentially a two-hander, but they provide more than enough energy to sustain it. They could probably recreate the gist of it on stage, but Crow also incorporates some surprisingly cinematic storm effects. He probably had a fracture of the budget (in real dollars) spent on The Perfect Storm (from eighteen years ago), but he made a far superior film.
The Smalls Lighthouse incident was sort of like the Donner Party or Triangle Shirt Waist tragedy of lightkeeping, but it only directly effected two people. Ironically, was of the first reforms enacted as a result was the mandated increase of lightkeeping teams from two to three people. We’d rather have a sturdy boat instead. Regardless, Crow does right by history and the lightkeeping tradition, while still serving up plenty of tension and atmosphere for genre fans. Recommended for those who can appreciate its smart, disciplined chills, The Lighthouse opens this Friday (7/6) in Los Angeles, at the Laemmle Music Hall.