David F. Sandberg’s concept horror film Lights Out is as simple as it is curt. Clipping along at a respectable trot, the film written by Eric Heisserer (The Thing remake, A Nightmare on Elm Street remake) admirably makes use of its sparse 81 minute run time but its bare bones conceit – a malevolent photophobic entity attacks an emotionally susceptible family – feels the creative constraints of its two-minute source material (a viral horror short, also from Sandberg.)
While Sandberg’s short didn’t bother with plot or character (after all, ’twas less than 150 seconds) Lights Out corners an interesting character dynamic that launches with an effectively chilling salvo. Those who’ve seen the fruitfully eerie trailer will recognize the scene. Billy Burke’s Paul is holed up in an office space. His assistant spies a spindly figure in the shadows. Flipping on the lights, it vanishes. Lights go out, she reappears. Repeat for duration of movie. It’s a ghastly vision, that which hunts in the dark and disappears in light. One that has haunted children stories for centuries. An archetypal evil, this same entity has cropped up by various names in various stories. All exist as some form of boogeyman. All feed on fear. Unfortunately, with Lights Out, we don’t have much fear to offer.
In darkness, the entity – not much later identified as Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) – thrives, singly intent on regaining a grasp on Paul’s emotionally insecure wife Sophie (Maria Bello). Proffering a quietly inspired performance in a film largely missing dramatic import, Bello’s nonplussed relationship with the unmistakably malignant spirit is the film’s most easily identifiable highlight. As she whispers into her closet late at night, or casually invites Diana to join in on family movie night, Lights Out reaches an eerie fever pitch riding the uncomfortable waves of Bello’s committed turn.
Sophie remains torn between her abusive relationship with the insidious Diana and her two children, the younger Martin (Gabriel Bateman failing to impress) and estranged daughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer in yet another horror offering) – drawing none-too-vague parallels to the emotional toll of domestic abuse. The conceit of parent lured to the dark – in this case both literally and figuratively – has been ripe grounds for horror films to pluck from for decades but the hurried pacing of Lights Out doesn’t allow the full potential of this dynamic to take flight.
Saddled with Heisserer’s uninspired, trope-laden script, Lights Out more often than not makes you wish the characters remained as silent as scenes are under-lit. You’ll see horror film conventions crowd the decision-making of its characters, who opt to split up, search basements, and otherwise roll the dice in generically unwise ways. What remains admirable is Sandberg’s snap-quick pacing, which at least accelerates the inevitable. On the one hand, Lights Out remains predictable from scene to scene but at least Sandberg doesn’t waste time drawing out a foregone conclusion but rather rushes towards it.
In terms of atmosphere, Lights Out has elements of which to be proud – the admittedly silly last act at least attempts to be creative in its ghoul-battling and employment of diverse lighting technique – though it’s decidedly lacking in convulsion-inducing scares. While the most basic tenant of anxiety – we fear most that which we do not see – is betrayed by our almost immediate introduction to Diana (and we’re privy to the extent of her abilities from scene one) she remains nonetheless a spookish figure – a fear-inducing proxy of the creatures that linger in dark shadows and lay beneath beds – if one who’s never quite able to illicit a proper movie scare. Even the sure-fire attempts at jump scares (sadly) miss the mark.
Compelling character dynamics attempt to keep Lights Out above ground but it can be difficult to stay invested through all the shrieking and bad decision making.
Bello remains a confident fulcrum upon which the film’s most interesting pivots occur though she’s left a begrudging secondarily character rather than the main attraction she should have been. The Shining succeeds as much as it does because we get a glimpse into the transformation of Jack Torrence, a bone-tingling metamorphosis elevated by an unrivaled performance from Nicholson, that parallels the blooming fear in Wendy and Danny. Lights Out has the opportunity to weave a similarly twisted familial implosion, and extent an olive branch Bello’s way, but opts for the abridged route, making Sophie’s ultimate coup de grâce lacking the punch Sandberg was so clearly hoping for.
CONCLUSION: Stuffed with horror movie bromides, ‘Lights Out’ haunts an interesting concept with a conventional script. Maria Bello shines as a conflicted maternal figure but David F. Sandberg’s debut feature can’t quite formulate how to actually make it all scary.