Being afraid of the dark is a familiar childhood anxiety that has exploited in terrifying proportions in the horror genre. “Lights Out” knows how to cash in on the panic that can assail the mind when the lights go out. Bad things happen in darkness and “Lights Out” lays it on thick, even though the story is set in Southern California, which is drenched in megawatts of sunshine.
This is a debut feature by David F. Sandberg who based “Lights Out” on his own, identically titled (and themed) three-minute short from 2013. A much splashier name on the credits, though, is James Wan as producer. According to the production notes, Wan — the man who wrote and directed the first “Saw,” and went on to give horror fans such notables as “Insidious,” “Dead Silence” and “The Conjuring” — supervised much of the proceedings for “Lights Out.” For all that, “Lights Out” is a strangely understated affair. Fans of the genre may go in ready to scream their heads off, but will likely come out relatively serene.
What happened? A desired PG-13 rating, that’s what. In a bid to reach a wider audience, we end up with a really compelling storyline but with huge chunks of plot detail and scare factor taken out so as to accommodate the preteen audience.
Having gotten that gripe off my chest, on to the movie. Funnily enough, understated actually works for about 70 percent of the film’s 81-minute run. It kicks off with an office scene in a mannequin factory (always a sign that you’re about to be terrorized). The owner of the company is Paul (Billy Burke), who is taking a break from working late and having an online chat with his young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman).
From their conversation, we glean that mom Sophie (Maria Bello) is having mental health problems and has shut herself in the bedroom, talking to herself. Paul promises to be home soon , but as he’s leaving, he sees a shadow of someone or something crouching on the floor of the parking lot. When he turns the lights on, the shadow disappears. Lights off, it’s there again. He grabs a baseball bat to defend himself and runs back inside the office. Martin never gets to see his dad again.
The perpetrator in “Lights Out” has a fear of light. It’s at its most menacing after sundown, or when it’s lurking in the darkest corner of a room. It seems to reside in Sophie’s closet, and comes out at night to rattle the doorknob to Martin’s room, crawl along the rug and get under his bed. Martin is too scared to sleep and so he seeks help from his estranged half-sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who lives in town and is initially wary of returning to the family circle. Upon hearing her kid brother’s story, however, she changes her mind and confronts their mother, whom she suspects is being victimized by her own demon and spinning out of control — a situation Rebecca experienced as a child when she lived with her.
“Lights Out” is masterful at building ambience and the contrasting light and dark visuals would have delighted Junichiro Tanizaki (author of “In Praise of Shadows”). But when it comes to developing characters and making sense of their actions, it falters.
As with most horror movies, characters make the most egregious decisions, which include drawing all the curtains in the house in the daytime when everyone knows the creature feeds on darkness, and wandering into darkened hallways and Martin’s room, which are only lit by a feeble vintage lamp or two.
Most disturbing of all is Sophie, who really should have gotten a gym membership, started gardening or something that would have gotten her out of that house. When she suggests to Martin that they spend some “personal time together” with popcorn and a movie, she puts on something from old Hollywood instead of Disney, and starts to talk about her dark past.
Apologies for the pun, but this begs to be said: Someone should have told Sophie long ago to “lighten up.”
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Why do we still get scared at thing that go bump in the night? At the movies, I mean. Lights Out, the feature-length (well, 80 minutes) film version of a horror short that went viral online, allows Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg to earn his stripes as a director in the big leagues. It was horror master James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) who gave Sandberg the go-ahead for a $5 million feature.
He does a solid job of raising hell. With screenwriter Eric Heisserer fleshing out a 146-second short, Lights Out provides the reliably smashing Maria Bello a chance to dig into the juicy role of Sophie, a mother who keeps driving away the men in her life — not to mention her children. Insomniac daughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) has long ago moved out of the spookily-shaded family dump to an apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Now Rebecca’s 10-year-old stepbrother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) wants to head for the hills, or in this case, her apartment. His father (Billy Burke) has died at work for reasons unknown and Mom sees dead people. Make that one dead person: Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), a social outcast who did time with Sophie years ago in a mental institution. She’s is a real chatterbox, and harmless enough … until the lights go out. Then Diana starts death-dancing around the house like a spider hunting for a fly, namely anyone who gets in the way of her and Sophie. Turn on the lights, Diana’s gone. Turn them back on, it’s Halloween!
Predictable stuff, energized by some spiffy scare effects from cinematographer Marc Spicer who works wonders with underlighting. But the on/off tricks would grow tiring without actors who perform well beyond the call of fright-house duty. Bello makes a sympathetic figure out of a loving mother who thinks Diana is something she’s conjured out of her own subconscious. Her scenes with the skilled Palmer have a touching quality that suggest a real mother-daughter relationship grown toxic. It’s these two actors who make something hypnotic and haunting out of a movie built out of spare parts.
Lights Out was originally a three-minute viral short that is, in the professional parlance, frightening as fuck. It centered on a nameless woman who spots a dark silhouette at the end of her hallway after she flicks the lights off on her way to bed. When they’re back on, there’s nothing there. When she turns them off again, the figure reappears, suddenly closer, sending her scurrying off to the questionable sanctuary under her covers. It’s perfect in the way that only something so brief can be — no explanations, no context, just a funny-freaky encapsulation of what it’s like to scare yourself silly in the midst of surroundings that are totally mundane and familiar in the light of day.
As a full-length movie, Lights Out — the feature debut of Swedish writer-director David F. Sandberg, the man behind the short — has had to grow a larger plot with additional characters, who need not just names but also histories. The apparition now has both: Diana’s lurid backstory involves a mental institution, severe photosensitivity, and possible psychic powers, none of which make her the slightest bit more scary than the mysterious baddie in the original. But at 81 minutes, unfolding in a handful of key locations, and opting for practical effects and clever framing over computer-generated imagery (stuntwoman Alicia Vela-Bailey sells the hell out of Diana’s my-ghost-joints-are-funky movements), Lights Out is still lean and concentrated, and it benefits from that spareness, this time in a different way.
If the wraith in the Lights Out short is a symbol of the inexorable, irrational pull of nighttime terrors, the one in the full-length movie is more of a sloppy but hard to shake stand-in for mental illness. At times, the film comes across like a less artful, don’t-ask-too-many-questions take on The Babadook from the perspective of the children: punky twentysomething commitmentphobe Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who left home as soon as she could, and her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who still lives with their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). Sophie has gone off her meds, draped the house in blackout curtains, and started talking to shadowy corners. Martin grows so terrified and sleep-deprived that, at the sight of him, Rebecca allows herself to get sucked back into the troubled home life she’d eagerly fled.
From the ominous opening encounter that leaves Martin without his dad, there’s no question that Diana is real and deadly. But she’s also directly linked to Sophie’s least stable periods, as if she were a physical manifestation of Sophie’s downswings, dark days made literal. Sophie is the focus of Diana’s attention, but we see her through her kids, who are torn between wanting to pry their mother free from Diana’s grip and separating from her to save themselves. It works as pop-horror symbolism for having a loved one with all-consuming mental health issues, until an ending that settles on an abrupt and needlessly bleak solution.
Oh well — at least that only-seen-in-the-dark concept is still hair-raisingly effective, even in moments when it’s played for camp (like when Rebecca’s dreamy doofus of a boyfriend scrambles to escape a supernatural encounter). A scene in which Diana shows up in Rebecca’s apartment between blinks from the light of the neon sign outside the window is a skin-crawlingly good miniature set piece. It feels just enough like a bad dream to possibly be one, this dark figure crouched in the doorway, scratching at the floor. It’s simple, but that’s why it works so well, summoning the sickening feeling of being unable to decide if it’s better to keep an eye on something potentially terrifying or to look elsewhere and just hope it goes away.
Sometimes a dark figure in a dark room is all you need.