Where would we be without lighthouses, eh? It would be bad enough that ships were dashed 'pon the cruel rocks with loss of life and livelihood but even worse (well, maybe) we'd lose an intriguing setting for feature films
Because lighthouses make a great location for movies, something that Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson demonstrate again this very month. They're the stars of The Lighthouse, keeping the bulbs burning on the remote New England coast and going a bit crackers in the process.
A fine excuse, then, for a retrospective sweep over other such films and that's just what we offer below: celebrations of the romance and excitement of the keeper's life. If you've ever dreamed of escaping the mainland to run an actual lighthouse but were deterred by the cold and crushing isolation it would involve, this one's for you.
A forbidding title, set in a forbidding place—but a film that's something of an unsung classic. Made in 1931, it is the story of passion and betrayal, set in a remote lighthouse on the other side of the world where a frustrated keeper's wife falls for a handsome ship-wrecked mariner with less than happy consequences. Lust, loss and lighthouses—what more could you want?
The Phantom Light
Before he teamed up with Emeric Pressburger to make the best British films of all time, Michael Powell learned his trade making sprightly low-budget efforts like this comedy-thriller. It might not be A Matter of Life and Death but it's still tremendous fun—a tale of ghostly goings on and a devilish plot to wreck shipping. Plus it has Gordon Harker in the lead, and that's always a good thing.
As 1940 ground on, and the war started to bite, Thunder Rock—then a stage play—was the hottest ticket in London; a heavily allegorical piece about a man who runs away from the horrors of the world to look after a lighthouse, only to be tormented by ghosts who remind him of his obligations, it caught the mood of a people who weren't able to run away any more.
The inevitable film version starred Michael Redgrave as the tormented keeper. Coming three years into the conflict, it lacked some of the resonances but it's a fine record of an important play, even if it is inaccurate: real lighthouses were staffed by at least three people to prevent loneliness and allegorical trauma.
Tower of Terror
Thunder Rock didn't simply act as overture to the Second World War: it showed that the conflict would be the golden age of the lighthouse movie, in Britain at least. This early example a much more straightforward film and much more fun too: Michael Rennie plays an intrepid British agent who, after some derring-do in Germany, winds up in a Teutonic lighthouse. Unfortunately, the keeper is completely barmy and wants to kill him. Drat!
In an age of total war, the British state heaved everything they had at the enemy; naval blockades, aerial bombardments and—perhaps most terrifyingly of all—"Big Hearted” Arthur Askey. Back-Room Boy is his best film; he plays the titular functionary whose exile to a remote lighthouse is disrupted by evacuees, chorus girls and, of course, Nazi spies. But Adolf's boys don't have a chance with the big-hearted one snapping at their heels: no wonder the war ended just three years after this film was originally released.
The Seventh Survivor
Just what was it about wartime secret agents and lighthouses? Whether serving Axis or Allies, it would seem they just couldn't keep away from maritime beacons, at least if the movies are to be believed. The Seventh Survivor is yet more, very entertaining, evidence of this: after a passenger ship is torpedoed, six survivors—and a U-Boat captain—wash up at a lighthouse, and not one but two of these are agents, one British, one Nazi. Trouble is, no one is sure which one's which...
Tower of Evil
But the war ended, the secret agents went home and lighthouses stood idle (apart from keeping ships from crashing, obviously) until it was realised they would make a great setting for horror movies, especially if they were located on a lonely island. Such is the setting for Tower of Evil.
It's a touch uneven but contains enough elements to make it worthwhile—the deserted lighthouse, murders in the fog and hints of antique evils. Most terrifyingly of all, young buck Robin Askwith—he of the Confessions... films—assays an American accent, badly. Try not to have nightmares.
Incidentally, television is technically beyond the remit of this film-based feature but if we're talking about scary lighthouses, an honourable mention should be made for the Doctor Who serial The Horror of Fang Rock, which properly lives up to its title...
The Light Between Oceans
We end as we began, near enough—on the other side of the world with a tragic tale of love and loss. Far more tragic, in fact: Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander play an unhappily-childless couple looking after a lighthouse near Australia.
Circumstances contrive to send them an infant and they decide to raise it as their own. Only, with the sort of ill-fortune that lighthouse keepers seem unusually prone too, they then encounter the real mother, played by Rachel Weisz, desperately hoping to find her baby and... oh, just make sure you have the tissues handy 'cause this is a proper ten-hankie weepie.
The Lighthouse is out in cinemas across the UK on January 31
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