“Lights Out” is based off a YouTube short film of the same name directed by Dan Sandberg (whom also directed the original 3 minute short movie). “Lights Out” takes on the simple premise of darkness harboring our greatest fears and monsters. We all know we had that fear as a child. Even as we got older most of us are afraid of the unknown and what we can’t see. “Lights Out” makes use of giving the audience enough just enough to see but knows just when to pull back and let us use our own fears to make up the scares in our minds. What we can see in the movie is the dark silhouette of a woman like creature that can only appear when there is no light left.
The original short film is pretty creepy and ends on an abrupt jolt to the senses. The short stays with you. Still, turning a 3 minute short film into an 81 minute feature is a tall task to say the least. It’s not impossible, it has been done before, but still the premise is no doubt a bit gimmicky and what worked in a short movie might feel padded out or become boring in a feature film. Returning (and first time feature) director David Sandberg crafts a compelling, thoughtful, scary and creative little horror film all delivered in a tight package.
So here we have the same premise as the original movie but with an actual story attached around it. The story of “Lights Out” is about a broken family. Without giving too much away, the family has hit rough times as a young woman named Rebecca (played by Teresa Palmer) has all but left her struggling mother,Sophie (played by Maria Bello), to raise her brother Martin ( Gabriel Martin) by herself. But things have been getting worse at home for Martin as he struggles to stay awake because of a creepy creature that his mother calls Diana that has been lurking around the house. Rebecca brings herself back into her family drama to help her little brother but Diana is far more formidable then anyone would have previously thought.
At first glance the main story we are drawn too is about this almost demonic creature named Diana that is lurking around this family. It’s creepy, but it’s a bit unexpected in many ways. “Lights out” is more of a story about mental illness and how that affects family than it is just another slasher ghost movie. David Sandberg uses Diana as a way to explore mental illness in a very thoughtful way. Diana is in many ways represents someone unwillingness to not seek out the help that they need or you can view Diana as the mark that divides a family. The symbolic nature of the film’s chief baddie makes for thoughtful commentary. Some of the best horror movies are very socially conscious to the times it’s released and with mental illness being a big topic in today’s society “Lights Out” plays off that brilliantly; like the Australian horror film “The Babadook” did.
The movie’s thoughtfulness extends to its characters. It’s no secret that many horror films struggle with creating good characters. “Lights Out” has no such problem. The cast of characters is small and each one has their own small arc going on throughout the film. None of them are cast as idiots making poor decisions either. Each decision is justified and helps subverts the classic horror tropes that we’ve all come to expect from horror movie characters. The performances from the actors are very good as well. Teresa Palmer and Maria Bello are the standouts of the movie. Bello has the toughest role of the movie and her veteran committed acting skills helps makes for a compelling performance. Her plight and approach to her role feels very real. Bello isn’t acting as a horror movie character, she is acting as a woman that is struggling with her life. This movie has a really good child actor in Gabriel Martin and Alexander DiPersia is likeable in his role as well.
“Lights Out” has no shortage of scares either. After the opening act I thought to myself how can they keep this up without it becoming stale? Turning the lights on and off can get boring after a while. Sandberg (while clearly influenced by producer James Wan) finds more creative and fun ways to keep the scares coming. Not only that but Sandberg creates a really genuine creepy atmosphere and really relies heavily on the sound design and editing work (which really stands out) to enhance his scares. Each creek of a footstep is heard with deadly precision; which only adds to the tension. This movie has atmosphere but it still has plenty of jump scares that’ll make your body twitch. You won’t find any cheap jump scares that plague the worst of horror films instead you’ll be jumping at everything that is supposed to be scary. Like James Wan’s “Insidious” and Scott Derickson’s “Sinister” the jump scares work because it comes after an atmosphere is establish, build up was done properly and the scares are of things that are scary (I won’t know truly how scary this movie is until I try to sleep at night). It might not have been as scary as I hoped it would but then that doesn’t diminish the amount of freights that are in it as is.
As for the movie’s biggest weakness I would say the dialogue is a bit too exposition heavy. I understand there is only 81 minutes to tell your story and some of the dialogue needs to further the story along but a few times it pulled me out a bit because it didn’t sound natural. It’s not persistent problem but one that comes up from time to time. And there are few events that happen in the movie that the story doesn’t explore enough of. There are two moments in the movie that come to mind that are only “surface” level. The explanation given to these events (no spoilers here) are fine but it felt more like the screenwriters didn’t have one an explanation so they skimmed over it best they could. I can’t go into great detail without giving something away.
The small problems are there but the movie’s strengths far outweigh them. “Lights Out” is a great follow up to this year’s previous Warner Bros. studio horror film “The Conjuring 2” (directed by producer James Wan) and I will be sure to add to my Halloween marathon list. It’s a fun movie but it’s also very thoughtful and timely. The horror picture succeeds not just on the back of the scares but on the strength of its story and characters (which are probably more interesting than the horror). The ending left me emotionally hit hard and delivered a proper finale. I think this’ll hold up to repeat viewings and will make you look a little closer into the dark at night.