The latest theatrical horror offering, Lights Out, beats the Summer heat serving up a cooler of chills, thrills and jump scares galore. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer weaves a simple but intriguing story out of director David F. Sandberg’s viral short film of the same name. The concept is simple, the monster hides in the shadows and can only be seen in silhouette. The visual first causes nervous pause as the on screen character flickers the light on and off struggling to figure out what the hell is actually going on until it is too late. Boo! The silent shadow is suddenly in front of its victim and lights out. The short takes less time to display its conceit than this explanation does. The film takes this idea and ramps it up. It often repeats this scare over and over but it does manage to instill a decent back story and a few new scares to cause its audience to shriek in delight. Sandberg’s feature version is a brisk 81 minutes but succeeds in creating a fun, thrilling horror film and introduces a new horror threat in its antagonist, the ghostly Diana.
The film gets the comparisons out of the way in the first five minutes or so. It uses this opportunity to set up the rules. When Paul (Billy Burke) turns off the lights, he can catch a glimpse of the creature in the shadows. When the lights come back on, it disappears. When the lights are on, he is safe; lights out, he’s dead. It takes Nyctophobia to a whole new level. The narrative shifts to Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) establishing her issues with commitment, relationships and family right from the start. While attracted to her current squeeze, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), she remains defensive and guarded, keeping him at arm’s length. He is ready to commit to their relationship, she is far from it. Things get more and more awkward the more he insists, then Rebecca’s family issue bubble to the surface when her step brother, Martin (Gabariel Bateman) calls needing her help.
Young Martin is afraid of the dark, deathly afraid. His mother Sophie (Maria Bello) has not been handling the death of her husband well at all. She slinks around the house at night talking to herself. One night Martin gets a glimpse of the truth hiding in the shadows. He sees the shadowy ghost of Diana (Alicia Vela-Baily) haunting his mother. Diana gets stronger the more Sophie sinks into mental collapse. Unable to sleep, causing issues at school, he turns to his step-sister for help. Together they uncover the truth behind Diana and race to escape the horror and save their mother from insanity. Diana has other things in mind…
David F. Sandberg breathes an infectious enthusiasm into Lights Out. He embraces his concept and executes it with style and confidence. Sandberg is looking to scare his audience and he does just that. He understands some simple laws of horror films: don’t over do it and don’t show your monster. Diana is only seen in shadow for most of the film and she is all the more creepier because of it. A claw like hands here, a pair of glowing white-hot eyes there. Or he allows her to utter the words “lights out” to terrifying effect. He focuses on the dysfunctional family unit having Rebecca face her isolation and her family history. She fights to save her step-brother, a simple heroic gesture. Sandberg provides brief exposition on the character of Diana, just enough to establish the why and suggest a possible how. He sets his stage, places his pieces where needed and begins his game of seeing just how scary he can make his film become.
While the film does rely heavily upon “jump scare” tactics, it earns its place in doing so. These are not cheap distracting “Boo!” moments whose only purpose is the jolt the audience unexpectedly. These are how the monster in the movie works. They are not cats jumping into frame from outside the window, the jumps scares are the monsters in the shadows leaping into your nightmares to drag you away. Once the idea is in place, the film plays a masterful game of cat and mouse as the characters must avoid every shadow and the monster that hides within. He uses everything at his disposal to ward off the beast as characters grab at mobile phones, candles, black lights and, most spectacularly, car headlights to illuminate a defense or “safe zone.” He uses this light versus dark world building to great effect during the film to keep his audience off balance. When a police officer begins firing at Diana approaching down the dark hallway, she briefly disappears as the flash of the gunpowder goes off quickly reappearing closer and closer until its too late. By deftly creating the world for Diana to exist, Sandberg is able to create a cinematic monster that has the potential to rival Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger.
Lights Out benefits from a great cast. Gabriel Bateman is fantastic as young Martin dealing with the horror of his mother’s mind. He quickly establishes his character’s nervous existence in his own home when visiting his mother late one night. His reaction to Sophie’s comments about “did we wake you” are well done. He also shows a great deal of strength of will as he faces the terror of the dark and risks everything to save his mother. His strained relationship with his step-sister is interesting as well. He wants to depend on her to save him but realizes he must be there for his mother as well. It is an interesting character conflict buried beneath all the scares.
Teresa Palmer makes Rebecca the reluctant hero. She is forced to face a barrage of personal fears to save her step-brother. The main conflict is her fear of commitment, still suffering from when her father leaving home years ago. She finds herself relying upon Bret, realizing that he may be the real deal emotionally. Perhaps, realizing this far too late, if Diana has anything to say about it. She has to face her mother, her mother’s mental issues and the home she too abandoned years ago. Her past may be far more frightening for Rebecca than the monster that lies waiting in the dark. Palmer embodies Rebecca with a spunky, rebellious spirit making her character easy to root for. She’s adamant and determined. Yet, she struggles with her true emotions for her step-brother, her mother and Bret.
With Lights Out, director David F. Sandberg creates a new scary monster for horror fans to imagine in their nightmares. He also establishes himself as a horror director to keep an eye on. He gleefully illustrates his understanding of what frightens an audience, bringing to life the things that go bump in the night. He also has a great sense of fun. Bret’s escape for the house is both scary and humorous with imaginative invention. Sandberg is a confident director knowing just when and where to play his cards. Eric Heisserer’s script keeps the story focused on the core family and the monster, bringing the outside world into theirs only when necessary. The film provides just enough to establish the rules of its monster without diving in too far. The cast is great with Teresa Palmer making a fantastic lead. Gabriel Bateman gives his young Martin an endearing sense of heroism as he faces his fears to save his mom. Even Alexander DiPersia makes the most of his underdeveloped character. While Lights Out relies heavily upon its jump scare origins, it also makes the most of the world in which it establishes. Sandberg and team elevate the fear using the concept behind Diana and the general audience’s fear of the dark. They provide the film with a thrilling, heart racing hour and a half. Lights Out is creepy great fun.
Lights Out (4.5 / 5)