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Movies Pat the Cat Review by
Pat LeCat
Lighthouse (USA)
Tungsten Pictures / Winchester Films / A-pix Entertainment
Rated: USA: R

The man lies hiding under the seat of the lifeboat, stranded on the shore. In between the cracks of the planks he can see the killer coming out of the shadows, bearing another freshly cut head. The killer deposits the head on the plank, next to the others. He towers over the boat and stares right back at the man hiding beneath the board. Or so it seems.

I had nightmares like this as a child.

Seems I wasn't the only one. So did Dr Kirsty McCloud (Rachel Shelley), a criminal psychiatrist badly in need of a shrink herself. Some say the best therapy is facing your own fears. Sounds pretty good on a talk show. It's another thing when your worst fear is the bogeyman and both of you are stranded on a rock.

A prison ship transporting, guess what, prisoners sinks one stormy night at large of the English coast. Seven survivors make it to a lighthouse set on a roc: the captain of the ship, two prison officers, three prisoners including Richard Spader (James Purefoy) as well as the above mentioned Dr McCloud. No living soul is to be found anywhere. The party atmosphere drops several notches further when it is revealed that among the prisoners on board was a certain Leo Rook (Christopher Adamson: BEYOND BEDLAM, JUDGE DREDD, RAZOR BLADE SMILE). Like Hannibal Lecter, a short silence greets his name in polite society. Seems Leo Rook is your typical next door mad scientist, who used people, more exactly pieces of them, to conduct his experiments. Rook is also the reason McCloud was on board, conducting a study on him. It's anyone's guess how much morbid fascination motivates McCloud, who is plagued by nightmares about her mother's murder by a father figure strangely resembling Rook himself.

And of course, Leo Rook got there long before anyone else. Why else would there be no living soul in an operating lighthouse?

LIGHTHOUSE, the first feature of writer/director Simon Hunter starts out almost as good as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Unfortunately it ends up like too many mediocre thrillers. However, what you have in between is good enough to deserve mentioning.

The first images show police footage of Rook's laboratory. The blood drenched walls in grainy black and white irresistibly bring to mind that Burkitsville forrest house. And with the memory comes another feeling: dread.

The look of the movie gets noticeably stylized as we delve further into the mind of Kirsty McCloud, culminating later on in an impressive dream sequence. At first, director Hunter doesn't let the flashy camera work get in the way. He even uses it to enhance the fear, as he does silence, as in the scene where the captain of the ship realizes they're not alone in the lighthouse.

The captain is sitting on the toilet.
A place of quiet and privacy.
Also of intense vulnerability.
As he's about to flush, he thinks he hears something.
Slow and methodic footsteps.
Peering from under the door, he sees white loafers.
Whoever's wearing them still think he's alone.
Whoever's wearing them also holds something that drips red drops on the loafers.

Feet on the toilet seat, the captain doesn't dare to breath.

The white loafers continue their way towards the spiral staircase. Down, down, down . . .

The captain starts breathing again.
Until he knocks a can of air freshener.
The air freshener lands on a rag. Whew.
Then rolls down the floor towards the stairwell.
And stops right at the edge.

Then . . .

I used to have nightmares like that too.
At least I think I did. Or could it be Hunter's use of subjective cameras from the victim's POV that makes the scenes so nightmarishly convincing? The scenery is also put to good use, from the maze of rocks outside to the claustrophobic lighthouse interiors.

But it is in the final reel, horror really takes over: The movie starts getting silly.

If only it got just a bit silly. But no, first time director Hunter is not one to shy away from a challenge. When the movie is scary, it is hair-raising, breath-stopping SCARY. Once it delves into turkey territory, it's Thanksgiving.

Early in the movie there is an hint that things might go wrong - I mean, worse than having Dr. Rook messing with your head: the "boo, it was only a rat!" scene. You know, the kind of scene usually set in the first half of the movie, that tells you what you're watching will be short on fresh thrills. The rat behind the curtain bit was done convincingly only once, in Shakespeare, and even he had a murder to back it up.

The script first falters when it fails to explore any further the ambiguity of Spader's character. He claims to have been framed for his wife's murder, but the circumstances are so implausible no one onscreen will believe him. Yet he is sold to the audience as the poster boy for unsung heroes. To nail the point, the character is played by James Purefoy, hunky from every camera angle, which makes the interaction between him and Kirsty McCloud predictable from the start. Indeed it barely takes a smile and the above mentioned rat incident to turn McCloud's attitude from suspicion to trust. Sure, there's not much to do around a lighthouse and people do get horny on full moon nights, but still.

Likewise, several interesting leads are never picked up. We never learn the nature of Rook's experiments, except that it involved body parts. With no apparent motivation for his acts, Rook comes off less like a criminal genius than a feeble-minded brat who cuts off heads like he would insect wings. Chris Adamson's performance doesn't help. Chillingly convincing as a silent backlit presence, he hams it up so much in the final scenes he destroys all of his villain credibility (and much of the movie's as well. Hitchcock used to say that a thriller was as good as its villain. I never knew how right he was until I witnessed Adamson grinning like a brain-damaged Dracula.)

Death blow to the movie is given by the ridiculously over-the-top finale, which looks like the product of ill-advised rewrites. Hey, we got a bloody lighthouse! Let's have some real cloak-and-daggers around here! Damsels in distress hanging from ropes! Frayed ropes! Burning ropes! Fire! Pyrotechnics! Damsels in distress hanging by their hair! Heroes battling villains with one hand! Austin Powers! Behave! Whatever happened to "less is more"?

Meanwhile the helpless spectator watches what could have been a classic degenerate into Ed Wood with a budget, leaving him to ponder the great F. Scott Fitzgerald sentence : "There are no second acts in the lives of Americans." Though there's a growing suspicion that what he actually said was: "There are few convincing final acts in horror movies."

There's only one way to rate such a movie. For its terrific 70 minutes, grant it 4 Shriek Girls.

Then close your eyes, open them again and for the last 10 minutes pretend you're watching another movie.

One that rates 4 Negative Girls.

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
Negative Shriek GirlNegative Shriek GirlNegative Shriek GirlNegative Shriek Girl
This review copyright 2000 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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