BEACON (Tribeca 2024) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Emily (Julia Goldani Telles) is a wide-eyed and ambitious young sailor, eager to continue the family tradition on a long distance solo sailing adventure to solidify her bond with her patriarchal lineage. Caught in a terrifying storm, her plans are halted by a catastrophic accident after which she awakens to find herself in the care of Ismael (Demián Bichir), a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island who nurses her back to health. With contact to the outside world both limited and unreliable, a complex relationship develops as the two are forced to cohabit. As doubt and fear about her predicament increase, the pressure cooker of their circumstances points towards an explosion that seems increasingly inevitable.

While Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse might be the most immediate point of reference for Roxy Shah’s Beacon, there is in fact a long history of lighthouse horror that transcends cinema alone. From Edgar Allan Poe’s unfinished final work The Light-House in 1849 and H.P. Lovecraft’s The White Ship (1919) to the many lighthouse set plays of Paris’s notorious Grand Guignol theater, Jean Grémillon’s 1929 film Gardiens de phare (The Lighthouse Keepers) brought the spirit of this strand of theatre alive on screen, and is – if nothing else – a notable precursor to Eggers’ film in particular.

Where Beacon most notably deviates from this tradition, however, is Shah’s aggressive, central reworking of the ‘people go crazy in a lighthouse’ trope so that it has a distinctive gender political edge. Beacon is not the first nor the only lighthouse-set horror film directed by a woman, of course, with Susan Shadburne’s Shadow Play (1986), Sabrina Mansfield’s The Shadows (2010) and Aislinn Clarke’s The Lighthouse Keepers (2012) numbering amongst earlier examples. But – with its recent world premiere at Tribeca – Shah’s film is certainly one of the most high profile.

While effectively a chamber piece, Shah also shrewdly employs her stunning location to stop the film from feeling too stagey. But it is unsurprisingly the spark between Telles and Bichir that very much drives the film and brings Julio Rojas’s taut screenplay to life. Thanks to them, the film successfully makes these characters believable and avoids them falling into cartooninsh parody. And while there is a delightful spirit of excess that increases as tensions mount, it is never at the expense of the integrity of these two central characters. A watertight encounter with the lighthouse-set horror trope that fully serves the film’s deeper gender political thematics, Beacon does exactly what it sets sail to do.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).