Directed by: David F. Sandberg.
Written by: Eric Heisserer based on the short film by David F. Sandberg.
Starring: Teresa Palmer (Rebecca), Gabriel Bateman (Martin), Alexander DiPersia (Bret), Maria Bello (Sophie), Billy Burke (Paul), Alicia Vela-Bailey (Diana).
Lights Out is a horror movie with a simple concept that works because of its direction and performances. It is based on director David F. Sandberg's short film – that while only 3 minutes long, was so well received, that he got $5 million for James Wan (director of The Conjuring, etc) to turn it into a feature. The film is about a deranged, spirit woman named Diana who has attached herself to her friend, Sophie (Maria Bello), who is her only connection to this world, and will do anything to protect that connection. One husband is has already run off, and another dies in the film’s opening sequence. Her two kids – Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) now in her 20s, has distanced herself from her family, and has tried to put her own childhood run-ins with Diana out of her mind. She is drawn back in out of concern for her 10 year old half-brother, Martin (permanently wide-eyed Gabriel Bateman). Oh, and Diana can only attack in the dark – she disappears as soon as light hits her. You would think this would make it easy to beat her – and you’d be wrong.
The original short film had no explanation for its demon woman character, and in the feature, that is the weakest part of the film. There is a lot of psycho-babble and talk of experiments, and blah blah blah – no one cares. I really wish more horror movies would take the tactic of The Babadook or It Follows, who doesn’t really feel the need to explain where the monster comes from, because there is literally no one to explain them that doesn’t sound ridiculously stupid. What matters in horror movies is that the scares are real, and that you actually care about the characters in jeopardy. In that regard, Lights Out is two-for-two.
To be fair, you could complain that many (perhaps most) of the scares in Lights Out are of the BOO! moment variety – where a character appears from nowhere to scare the crap out of the audience. These are, more often than not, both effective and cheap – the work in the moment, but don’t stay with you in the way the truly terrifying movie moments do. What sets the moments in Lights Out apart is that they actually do stick with you. Lights Out exploits our natural fear of the dark – not an overly original fear to exploit, I know, but an effective one. You can never quite tell what Diana is going to do – she isn’t always there to try and kill or hurt someone – something it’s just to stoke their fear. Sandberg mixes up the types of scares he puts on the audience.
Perhaps more importantly, he also makes us care about the three main characters as well (he is a little less effective at making us care for Rebecca’s floppy haired boyfriend, but, he seems nice). Bello and Palmer are perfectly cast as mother-daughter (from the previews, which didn’t reveal much of the story, I actually thought Palmer was playing a younger version of Bello – and thought that was perfect as well). Bello’s role is the type that allows actors to over-the-top if the choose – but Bello does something lower key – her mental problems are clearly there, but she doesn’t go wide eyed manic. It’s a more effective performance than it probably should be. Palmer is excellent as well – playing a woman trying to overcome her past and her own issues, at the same time, trying to be a good sister. She is a typical horror movie heroine in some ways, but she grounds her fear in the real world.