The Similarities Found in The VVitch & The Lighthouse
With his first two movies director Robert Eggers has more than proved himself as a young artist. His work brings a unique style and fresh perspective to a genre typically overlooked, while in spirit, retaining a connection to the “B Movie” nature of our favorite classic horror films. Eggers said when interviewed by Bloody-Disgusting that “...both [The VVitch and The Lighthouse] are me trying to commune with the folk culture of my past and are me and my brother’s take on New England folk tales. So they’re certainly companion pieces.” After watching The Lighthouse, I wanted to dive deeper into a few of the parallels that I noticed that might make these films companions, and to explore some of the techniques the Eggers brothers used in writing and directing that adds new depth to the ghost story.
The first thing that stands out to me from both of these movies is a commitment to outdated ways of speaking. Whether it be in dialogue, accents, or expressions, this commitment anchors the characters and audience to the setting, and creates a more complete sense of realism in stories fraught with absurd, supernatural events. Using old forms of a familiar language help suspend disbelief and add to the feeling that we’re seeing something we weren’t meant to see. For The VVitch, great lengths were taken to authentically recreate everything they could about the period, but reproducing true, Colonial English would make the dialogue virtually incomprehensible to audiences. According to Robert Eggers, what is used in the film is based upon today’s Yorkshire accent, combined with language taken from folkloric and historical accounts of witchcraft. This isn’t always easy to understand, but their dedication to dialects in script and performance immediately set both of these movies apart as different.
The same approach was used for The Lighthouse, but they benefited from the story being from a more recent time period. The authentic accents of the time are more recognizable when compared to present day English, and both Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson did extensive work watching lighthouse keepers speak to get their accents perfect. Dafoe says that though they tried out several accents, they stuck with what they thought the character was originally written for. His character Wake’s accent is a combination of West Country English and “the Robert Newton kind of classic pirate,” which absolutely has a certain rhythm and intent to its enunciation. If the writing was intended for that, it would be quite hard to let go of the accent. Pattinson’s Winslow, claims to be well traveled, so his Maine fisherman accent serves as a basis while hinting at a Canadian and possibly New York influence which comes out sounding a little like Daniel Day Lewis’ New Amsterdam accent from Gangs of New York. Pattinson said this accent rooted his character and performance in an interview with Vox, “When I first read the script and was figuring out something to connect to, I was listening to all these different Maine lobster fisherman accents. It sounded like a contorted accent, and you had to contort yourself to get the accent right, like in your face. Then it translated over to your body.” Pattinson has joked around with the idea that Dafoe’s pirate accent has been an influence on his Batman voice for the upcoming movie. I hope he goes through with it and plays him as a full on pirate but regardless, I can’t wait to see what he does. I have a sneaking suspicion he’s going to be my favorite Batman of all time but that’s a discussion for another day...
Both of these films were scored by Mark Korven. If you’re listening to the dialogue, you’re undoubtedly noticing the sound design as well. To describe score and sound as eerie or haunting really doesn’t do it justice. It’s beautifully written and completely upsetting, even when the music is tonal and not purposely serving to put the audience on edge. Korven says the much of the score for The VVitch was played on nyckelharpa and waterphone, which are medieval and 20th century instruments respectively. They’re used to evoke something that sounds like it could be from that time period. These instruments alone certainly give a sense of being lonely or lost, while the orchestration of extensive layering can leave you feeling genuinely disoriented. In an interview about the score with Bloody Disgusting, Korven said that he and Eggers went through efforts to capture the lives of the characters and the world they live in. “We both wanted to keep things quite minimal, and keep any human imperfections in the score. The score is tense and dissonant, but there’s also a certain fragility there, which reflects these people living on the edge of existence.”
Korven’s relationship with Eggers has evolved around creating music specifically for the characters. He later said of his experience scoring The Lighthouse, “Robert [Eggers] and I were rather like the two wickies that went insane in ‘The Lighthouse,’ musically speaking. We travelled to some very dark harmonic and textural places. We both enjoy not just breaking the rules, but blowing them to smithereens. The spirit of experimentation was always present.” Where the score of The VVitch evokes feelings of being lonely or lost in the woods, the score of The Lighthouse evokes that of being lost at sea. Screaming strings sound like something between flocks of gulls and sea monsters. Whether certain sounds are part of the story or a part of the score, they quickly become indiscernible as tension ramps up in both films. The moaning, chanting voices in The VVitch make you feel like someone or something is constantly right behind you, and the foghorn in The Lighthouse has gained new meaning through repetition, seeming much more like a “bell [tolling] for thee” than a signal to keep travelers in check. The sounds and score reinforce the character's fear that they are alone in facing something they can’t understand.
Both stories follow characters who willingly agree with an outside party to leave their home with the hope of finding a fresh start and bettering their lives. This takes them further out than they’ve ever been into an unfamiliar territory. The family in The VVitch and Robert Pattinson’s “Winslow” both start on unsure footing, and they are left almost completely alone to their own devices. The terror and desperation that comes with this loneliness is the first stage of our characters’ unraveling, and it influences our doubt of what we know to be real as an audience. Both stories have characters that fall prey to supernatural forces simply by being an ordinary person, sexual in nature and starved of all human contact.
In these pre-electricity, New England settings, taking care of even basic necessities is shown as grueling hard work. To survive out there alone takes everything these people have. A modern audience comfortably viewing these movies is forced to contemplate these very acts as technological marvels as well as pity these characters before anything supernatural has begun to work against them. The constant strain on the family and these men, to survive at the bare minimum, serves as a reminder of how vulnerable people of this era were to all things, not just witches and mer-people and devils. Sickness, hunger, cold, wild animals, and other people are all constantly referenced as potential sources of danger and death. The possibility of something worse traps our characters in a place where they’re constantly fighting to live in a terrible existence, yet remain stuck between a past that haunts them and an imminent, inescapable doom. Sucks.
LEGENDS & MYTHS
Early American folklore makes up the basis for both of these tales. We enter into them knowing these legends as the fantasies that they are. These movies are two of the most effective at using their settings to convince audiences of something unbelievable. We know so little of these bygone times, that when we really consider them, and when they’re shown to us in such exquisite detail, we’re forced to reconsider what we think we know. All characters in both pieces are sure of their world, either by age, experience, or religion. The mythical beasts and supernatural events in these tales are more “cosmic” than those of a typical horror film; they exist to show our characters how limited their concept of reality and knowledge of the world really are. Though the folk legends they know may be true, these things are Lovecraftian in a sense from somewhere beyond human understanding. The characters’ only choice is surrendering to these horrible creatures and curses. In an environment where human beings can barely survive on their own, they have utterly no hope against something that thrives by feeding on their pain and constant struggle. These tales both end with an eventual acceptance of these greater powers despite their obviously sinister nature.
A few quick differences in these movies I felt were worth noting! The Lighthouse might genuinely make you laugh where The VVitch never felt remotely funny though at times, is equally absurd. The Lighthouse does feel less like a ghost story though, equally steeped in folklore and myth. The VVitch felt like a nightmare where The Lighthouse felt like a fever dream. Less a difference, but worth mentioning that Jarin Blaschke shot both as Director of Cinematography and both look fantastic but The Lighthouse is one of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. Go watch both next time you’re in the mood to be deeply unnerved and see what connections you find!
Pierce Allen is a local musician and movie enthusiast living in Beacon, NY. His favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate and vanilla mixed together.