Lights Out is based on a very simple premise—it’s scary in the dark.
We’re enjoying a boomlet in minimalist horror films these days, and the reason is not far to seek. They’re cheap to make, popular with audiences, and can make a lot of money. Besides, who doesn’t like a good jump scare, or seven or eight? Lights Out, the first feature film by David F. Sandberg, sticks squarely to the playbook, but the end result is effective and includes enough character development and, heaven help us, appeals to our common humanity that it rises above level of the Paranormal series and the like.
Lights Out is based on a very simple premise—it’s scary in the dark. This seems to be part of the human condition, and may be due to the survival instinct that led primitive man to build a campfire at nice to keep wild beasts at bay. It’s also influenced by the fact that we’re just not well set up to see in low light, so it’s easy to trick yourself and see monsters in the shadows. Of course, they disappear when you turn the lights on, but what if you couldn’t turn the lights on and were trapped in the darkness with your fears?
The opening sequence is an expansion of a Sandberg viral video, in which a women sees a humanoid shape in the shadows, which disappears when she flicks on the light, until she flicks it one too many times. It’s not nice to fool with demons, you know. In this case, the sequence is set in a textile factory well-stocked with mannequins, which are creepy enough on their own and can easily be mistaken, especially in dim light, for a person. When the factory boss (Paul, played by Billy Burke) goes to investigate an employee’s report that there’s something in the factory that shouldn’t be, let’s just say that I’ve never heard of a mannequin that could claw a person to death.
Paul’s son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) hasn’t been sleeping well. In fact, he falls asleep in class so many times that a school counselor calls his mother to find out what’s going on. When she can’t be reached, the counselor calls his stepsister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who as a child experienced the same things that are keeping Martin awake now—strange sounds, threatening actions (e.g., door knobs that turn by themselves), and a mother (Sophie, played by Maria Bello) who talkes incessantly to someone named Diana (Alicia (Vela-Bailey). It doesn’t help that no one but Sophie can see Diana.
Rebecca, a woman in her early twenties, wants Martin to come live with her and her boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia), but the school counselor doesn’t think the court would consider them to be fit foster parents (the heavy metal posters and the bong in the living room probably figure in her reasoning). But Rebecca does something very important, while she’s still trying to figure out how to best help her little brother—she tells Martin that she believes him.
She also tries to figure out who this Diana is, and why her (admittedly mentally ill) mother seems so obsessed with her. The backstory she discovers is standard horror stuff (not an old Indian burial ground, but another of the top five horror clichés), and the documentary evidence we see on screen comes right out of the standard playbook also, but both serve their purpose. That would be to accelerate the action and set up a final confrontation that leads to a satisfying payoff, as this one certainly does. That’s exactly what you want with this kind of film—not King Lear, the catharsis that comes after a good workout for your scare muscles.
I saw Lights Out at a screening where the theatre rather inexplicably left the house lights half on. Seriously, you could have read a book in there. I’m not sure what was going on, but so much light in the theatre did not improve the effectiveness of a film where the scares are all based on the characters being, literally, in the dark. I hope this was a one-time glitch and not a regular policy, because if it’s the latter, half the enjoyment of this film will be lost. | Sarah Boslaugh