“To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” – Herman Melville
“What interests me the most is human behavior.” – Neil Simon
Director Robert Eggers has named many influences on his new nautical horror film The Lighthouse. They include filmmakers and writers such as Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Lang, and the poet Sarah Orne Jewett. But there is another writer whose work seems to have had an influence on The Lighthouse. That person is the playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon.
Simon had hit plays on Broadway such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. On the surface his naturalistic and seemingly lighthearted plays couldn’t be more dissimilar from The Lighthouse, which is an increasingly surreal horror film about two lighthouse keepers who descend into madness in 19th century New England. But if you stare at The Lighthouse close enough, similarities between it and Simon’s work will open up to you.
Two of Simon’s biggest early successes, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, center on conflicts between people who live together. Barefoot in the Park is about a married couple struggling to fix their new apartment, while The Odd Couple is about the conflict between the cleanliness-obsessed Felix Ungar and his slovenly roommate Oscar Madison. Much like those two Simon comedies, The Lighthouse is about the difficulties that arise when two people try to live together.
Lighthouse keepers (aka “wickies”) Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow face many of the same conflicts as Simon’s characters. They frequently try and fail to improve their uncomfortable living space like the married couple in Barefoot in the Park. Wake’s role in their living arrangement is almost identical to the one that Ungar performs in his apartment in The Odd Couple. They both cook for their roommates and complain when they do not clean up around the house. They might voice their desires differently — Wake tells Winslow that he wants him to clean nails until they “sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker” — and have lives separated by a century, but their wishes are the same.
The Odd Couple and The Lighthouse share a strikingly similar scene. Fed up with Ungar’s eccentricities, Madison lists off everything about him that he has grown to hate. Similarly, a rattled Winslow eventually has a monologue where he lists off everything about Wake that makes him sick. Winslow’s monologue even finds him calling Wake a “son of a bitch bastard,” which is an insult from the film version of Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys, which is also about two men who cannot be in the same space without engaging in a screaming match.
The main reason why The Lighthouse shares many similarities with Simon’s comedies is that they are both focused, above all else, on character. Eggers’s horror film may have surreal trappings (including a mermaid) but it is truly scary because it makes us empathize with Winslow before putting him in tense situations. Similarly, Simon’s famous early comedies are not joke machines, but humorous looks at how difficult it can be for people to connect with each other. They transcend their reputations — Eggers for making intellectual films that aren’t scary, Simon for writing plays that are funny but too mainstream to be worthy of critical attention as art — to attain great followings because they reveal something about what it is to be human.
The Lighthouse combines its many named influences to portray a terrifying world. But that world bears more than a little resemblance to the hilarious and humane world of playwright Neil Simon. That it does is probably far from intentional, and serves as a reminder that portraying our collective humanity across genres can remind people of all the things that they have in common.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.