The lights are out and the creatures are lurkin’ in the latest James Wan-produced horror film. Here, mere months after Wan’s own The Conjuring 2 hit theatres, we have another worthy opportunity to spook audiences with jump scares and screams galore.
The simple premise begs the question, “hasn’t this idea been done before?” The short film this is based on immediately answers that. Lights Out, the three-minute piece gone viral, undoubtedly changed the life of then-aspiring filmmaker David F. Sandberg, grabbing Hollywood’s attention and allowing him to tackle a creepy eighty-minute adaptation for the big screen.
When a creepy, unknown entity begins to haunt young Martin (Gabriel Bateman), he turns to the help of his older half-sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). Believing the entity is a product of her mother’s horrific past, Rebecca is forced to confront the horrors head on, all the while dealing with her broken family. Sophie (Maria Bello), the matriarch of the broken family, is manifested by the horrors of her past. Scarred by a history of mental illness, Sophie resorts to spending her nights with Diana, a silhouetted figure who spends her days lurking within the dark.
Part family drama, part psychological and supernatural horror, Lights Out offers up another solid example of genre mashing in mainstream movies. While a somewhat familiar horror antagonist looms throughout Lights Out and its unfortified corners, F. Sandberg’s feature-length debut uses the creature as a secondary side plot. The film avoids predictable narrative traps and inevitable character clichés in favour of family drama. Now, whether or not placing the focus here works well is a factor we’ll revisit shortly.
Much like the short that spawned his debut, F. Sandberg directs with cinematic precision and aims for absolute terror. Relishing a quintessential element of horror, the film takes typical genre tropes, twists them, and then confidently places them in the spotlight, so to speak. Case in point: the dark.
Packing enough jump scares and lurking in enough murky corners to permanently scar a child, the character of Diana is an impressive creation, a terrifying, malevolent horror villain from the film’s brilliant opening scene and well past her eventual reveal. With the various clichés occupying horror cinema, it’s refreshing to see Lights Out finding unique ways to embrace its familiarity, doing so with unnerving visuals and a captivatingly creepy antagonist.
However, where the film falters most is its front-and-centre family drama. A surprisingly personal tale of family, Lights Out meanders its scare factor with somewhat dull characters and tedious side plots. Even at a brisk eighty minutes, the film occasionally comes off as an unfortunate soap opera, divulging into a family melodrama about broken relationships that seems too expository, especially when attempting to flesh out one-dimensional characters.
Palmer spends a solid portion of the film donning the same, all too terrified look, although manages to deliver quietly endearing moments with co-star Bateman. Bello delivers a truly heartbreaking performance as Sophie, breaking down as Diana’s true colours begin to take effect. Bello inhabits the role with profound amounts of sadness; it’s one of her best roles in recent memory.
Lights Out may not be up there as the best horror experience in recent cinema, but it’s more than enough to exemplify the up-and-coming talent of David F. Sandberg. Short, brisk and quite terrifying, Lights Out has more than enough tension and scares for the everyday horror cinephile to enjoy. Keep the lights on tonight.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10