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My favorite definition of horror is allegedly William Friedkin’s: true horror is seeing something approach. I love it because it’s accurate but not universal, and two recent movie releases embody two very different ways this theme is subverted.
In Underwater, horror doesn’t so much approach as pull the top off the undersea drilling platform the characters are living in. Nora, played with typical focus and dedication by Kristen Stewart, is an engineer who survives the initial disaster and joins up with Rodrigo (an excellent and underused Mamoudou Athie) as well as Emily (Jessica Henwick!), Smith (John Gallagher Junior!), their Captain (Vincent Cassel!) and Paul (TJ Miller). The six soon realize that everyone else has either already escaped, or is already dead. They then realize the rig isn’t done exploding and their only chance at survival is to walk a mile across the seabed to an outlier station where they can resupply and call for help.
None of them figure out that six is a really high number for this kind of movie. But the script does.
Look, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing and there’s a lot to enjoy in Underwater, not the least of which is Stewart’s work. She’s a surprisingly perfect granddaughter of Ripley, balancing hands on practicality with moments of subtle vulnerability that mean you buy her as a deep-sea oil worker in the same way you frequently hear TJ Miller talking. She’s clearly grieving, and you find out why. She’s also clearly terrified and lets that out through subtleties of physical performance that raise the film. The cast uniformly impress in fact, with Cassel’s haunted Captain a surprisingly great foil. Miller has a couple of good lines, Gallagher Jr. and Henwick are a good dutiful, serious couple. There are moments of believable levity and verbal shorthand from this group of likable assholes, even as something very unpleasant begins to pick them off. You like them. Most of them. You care when they die.
But it’s when Underwater starts doing the Fredkin boogie that things get interesting though oddly, not quite interesting enough. Cassel’s character isn’t telling anyone the whole truth and never actually does. There’s this thing horror does that I love, which is embodied in this moment from The Mist:
Something impossibly vast and completely alien. Something whose very existence changes your life forever even though you are cosmically and physically beneath it’s notice. It’s chilling and beautiful, it throws stress fractures across the glass of the world and Underwater tries to do this not just with it’s final reveal but with the sort of horror it is.
Because while it starts as a creature feature, the third act features a hard right turn towards this asshole right here:
*sighs* Hi Howard. You massive racist.
This is Howard Philips Lovecraft, grandfather of contemporary cosmic horror, man who hated punctuation almost as much as I sometimes seem to do, and did I mention, massive racist.
You can (if you must) dig into the discussion about it. I’ll drop some links here. The short version is a small group of people doing the ‘IS IT THOUGH?’ meme from Thor: Ragnarok and everyone else nodding and trying to change the subject.
HPL, for all his uncountable faults, could string a yarn. The Deep Ones, an aquatic race who worship the Elder God Cthulhu, are some of his best creations. Cthulhu by the way sleeps in a city beneath the ocean and should he ever wake WILL DOOM US ALLLLL! ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!
So, elder god, undersea city, mysterious drilling rig explosion, Vincent Cassel looking shifty. You’re picking up what I’m putting down, right? Good, good.
It is in fairness played in a really fun way: a brief shot of a sketch of Cthulhu on a wall. The implication that it’s what the drilling rig was looking for. The Captain’s dubious past. All of it speaks to another story happening just off shot and trusts the audience to assemble what they need. A lot of people didn’t like it. At all. I dug it a good deal and even when the movie abandons caution, it still works.
This isn’t seeing horror approach. This is watching horror punch the building next to you knowing you’re next but your friends might not be. Here Lovecraft is a destination not a landscape, something sketched in enough for some audience members and not too much for others. It’s an attempt, and not a fully successful one, to re-contextualize him rather than excuse him. It doesn’t work because undersea silt is, it turns out, not the best thing to cover your third act in, but there’s still some really good stuff in there and a belter of a performance from Stewart. Not successful, but not unworthy and possibly the oddest mainstream horror movie you’ll see this year.
And speaking of odd…
The Lighthouse, on the surface (HA!) is not just a more overt horror movie but a more overtly Lovecraftian one. Veteran lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe) is obsessed with the light he guards to pornographic levels. Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) is new to the job, haunted, irritable and keeps dreaming of a mermaid who shrieks with a seagull’s voice. Locked together on a remote lighthouse for a month, the two men have no choice but to face down every single one of their failings, again and again. Here, true horror isn’t seeing something approach, it’s sharing a table with it. Every. Single. Night.
Robert and Max Eggers’ script is at its best when it embraces the two poles of the story embodied by its characters. Ephraim has fresh eyes and is almost instantly overwhelmed by the casual psychological abuse of Thomas and the hellish demands of the job. Pattinson seethes like no actor on earth and the moment towards the end where he finally cooks off and just verbally demolishes the older man is vastly satisfying.
It also doesn’t do anything, which is where the horror lies for Ephraim. He shows up with his magical plot basket full of secret angst, becomes convinced that there’s something supernatural about Wake’s relationship with the lighthouse and, for him, the answers don’t matter. Out here, past the breakers, Ephraim has tried to escape. Instead, all he’s left with is the noise in his own head. It curdles reality and ultimately costs him everything. Or gives him exactly what he wants, depending on how you read the ending.
Ephraim is a monosyllabic open book. Thomas is a motormouth enigma, endlessly talking but never actually saying anything. Defoe’s violently cheerful gregariousness is every terrible boss you’ve ever had, farting through his longjohns all the way through your sleep shift. He’s also pretty clearly broken in ways Ephraim can only guess at, frequently visiting the light naked, possibly masturbating to it and at one point appearing as a cackling barnacled monstrosity.
Except, of course, this is all from Ephraim’s point of view and narrator, thy name is unreliable. For me, that’s the true nature of the horror here, as we’re denied certainty and closure in exactly the same way the two men are. Thomas might be something more than human. Ephraim may kill a one-eyed gull who is the reincarnation of Thomas’ former partner. The closest we get to certainty is a final desperate attack from Thomas, screaming something that sounds like ‘YOU CAN’T HAVE HER, SHE’S MINE’. It does precious little good, for either man. But, once again, something huge brushes past us in the mist and here, returns to the sea. True horror not approaching, but receding, leaving nothing but silence and blood.
Underwater tries to re-contextualize Lovecraft through a post-Cloverfield lens and falls just short but with full marks for the unusual approach. The Lighthouse takes the exact opposite approach laying out an incredibly Lovecraftian setting and premise and then cheerfully refusing to do anything of the sort, opting for ambiguity the way Underwater doesn’t. Technically it’s vastly superior but what matters more is that there is plenty of room for all sorts of horror stories out in the wild, wild sea and these two movies embody both that welcome variety and the ambition to keep pushing the envelope.