-A mildly spooky little horror flick.
I think that when expanding the infamously scary short to a feature length, director David Sandberg may have spent a little too much time pondering over the Australian horror hit The Babadook. Although the execution is much different, it tends to seem that the background themes do overlap just a little bit, and while not as good of an overall film as The Babadook, this new horror hit definitely gets its claws in you at certain points.
Lights Out does for fear of the dark what no other horror film has done. It uses light as the literal savior, combating the monster directly, rather than the typical “day you’re safe, night you’re dead” plot structure.
On its surface, Lights Out is a film about a fractured family dealing with a nasty, ghostly presence. What it’s really about is grief, paranoia, and mental instability, and how it affects a family.
We open in a warehouse run by Twilight’s Billy Burke, and well, he sees a lady-thing that can creep up and grab you in the dark, but disappears with the flick of a light switch. She may be able to slightly influence the effectiveness of the lighting structures, but she mostly slithers and skulks her way through the shadows, looking for a way to get a gnarled hand on ya.
A few deaths later and we begin focusing on a very strained family dynamic. A family matriarch Sophie (Maria Bello) is bipolar and unmedicated, and is talking to this ghostly presence in her home. She states that it’s her “friend” Diana, and Diana got really fucked up when she was a kid, but now Sophie is there for her and is going to make everything homely (for this non-existent demon.) She has custody of her 10ish year-old son Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who is getting tormented by this ghostly presence, unable to sleep because of having to leave the lights on to repel her. He teams up with his punk-rock big sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her surprisingly sweet and resourceful boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) to try to help the mom feel better mentally, and also get rid of this ghostly spirit “Diana.”
The good things about this film are the same good things about the short: the scares are effective. The scenes that involve the flickering lights while trying to avoid Diana are extremely spooky. She’s a good ghostly villain, her sound is announced by a nasty crackling, and she moves contingent upon where the light sources are. I’ll openly admit that there are two or three scenes that had the hair raised on the back of my neck.
But in my opening, comparing it to The Babadook, the film makes mistakes along the way that involve the characters, which are too loosely developed to recommend this on a dramatic basis. The mental health issue is one thing, but they do too much in trying to explain and humanize the Diana character. Apparently, she was locked in a basement and treated with UV Rays for a skin condition, and it caused her to just evaporate. It’s complete nonsense, and once the film goes into that, and the mother’s relationship with her before/during/after this incident, we lose all respect for the film’s sense of realism. Making it a part of the mom’s paranoia due to depression would be fine, or just explaining that Diana doesn’t like the light because she can’t live there. We don’t need a 30 minute sob story to get us to empathize with the ghost character. Then, when her face is finally revealed, the whole thing becomes silly.
Teresa Palmer and Alexander DiPersia are both serviceable actors here, and I realize the need to provide character drama to enhance the ghost plot, but it can be simple. Let’s just keep using the gimmick until it doesn’t work anymore, and then we’ll end the movie. The idea is solid, the acting is fine, and there are some scares, so this is above your average horror fare, but I don’t need to know who the hell Diana is, I just want her to scare me.
P.S.: Don’t stare into any black crevices in your home after this movie for a night or two. I was a little on edge when I got home.
Lights Out (2016)
Director: David Sandberg
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, and Billy Burke
RT Score: 81%