Written by: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), David F. Sandberg (short film)
Directed by: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, and Maria Bello
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Keep the lights out."
Lights Out feels familiar in more ways than one. Not only is it the umpteenth riff on a jump-scare laden ghost story, but it’s the result of a situation we’ve seen more than a few times before, where a high-profile genre director lends his name to a production in order to establish instant credibility. The only problem is that this has often had the opposite effect in the past: at a certain point the likes of “Wes Craven Presents” and Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures label became more ominous than promising. In the case of Lights Out, it’s James Wan’s turn to put on the producer’s hat in support of David F. Sandberg, here expanding upon his own two-minute short film. It seems like a dubious proposition (there’s a natural doubt that arises when you’re adapting a concept that seems this thin) and, for a while, Lights Out feels like an all too familiar dud—it’s fine enough but leaves you wishing it did a bit more to live up to its pedigree.
Eventually, however, Lights Out sort of sneaks up and endears itself to you, even if a lot of the early-going sags just a bit under the weight of that stuffy familiarity. A clever concept—a ghost that only manifests in the dark—is mined for some pretty standard (if not well-crafted) sequences of characters being spooked by strange noises and loud jolts. Predictably, the haunts revolve around a fractured family: the mother (Mario Bello) is constantly spooked and often talks to herself, a condition that drove away her daughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who grows concerned when her younger brother (Gabriel Bateman) seems to be enduring the same fallout from the mother’s psychosis. Along with her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), she’s determined to save her brother by finally confronting Diana, the malicious specter that’s haunted her since childhood.
To his credit, Sandberg does quickly lay to rest any anxieties about just how far this concept can be stretched. Diana is a terrific movie monster, one that rightly operates in the shadows, emanating a preternatural menace any time she’s on-screen, however briefly. Sandberg has obviously taken notice of Wan’s ability to stage scare sequences, as he shows a solid ability to craft meticulous jolts of his own. While you do sometimes find yourself wishing he’d opt for some subtlety (nearly all of Diana’s appearances are accompanied by a loud sting from the score—even what should be the relatively low-key ones), there’s a wry energy to the film whenever any character is in danger of being left in the dark. There’s genuine tension in this regard, though it’s also undergirded by a sense of playful fun—you find yourself wondering just how and where Diana where appear next (spoiler: it’s almost always in the distance before she teleports right in front of your damn face).
Not that this needs to be the end-all metric of filmmaking, but there’s not much very groundbreaking outside of the fairly unique mythology here. As well-done as this particular collection of scares is, you do start to feel a little fatigue from watching people skulk around dark houses and being dragged around by unseen forces for what feels like the hundredth time or so. For about half the film, Lights Out feels like a struggle between solid filmmaking and familiarity; typically, the former can conquer the latter, but this particular battle almost shapes up to be a frustrating stalemate. Sure, it’s pretty good, but I’ve seen it so many times that it’s hard to get that worked up over a middle-of-the-road effort.
But something odd happened that eventually pushed Lights Out just over the top: I came to realize that these are fairly well-drawn characters and that I liked them. If nothing else, Sandberg also realized that Wan’s films thrive on character work and performances—I’m fairly confident that The Conjuring or Insidious films wouldn’t be nearly as effective without those components. Considering Lights Out doesn’t rise to such heights (not that many contemporary horror films do, of course), I’d hate to think how dull it’d be if it didn’t also show an investment in its characters. It’s a small set here, which only heightens the intimacy of it all—you certainly find it hard to accuse Lights Out of only being concerned about its horror sequences.
Instead, Lights Out functions well as a familial drama in addition to being spooky enough. Palmer makes for a good, earnest protagonist—I love that the film accepts that Rebecca’s sort of a mess and doesn’t apologize for it, nor does it demonize her for being non-committal in her relationship (her first scene finds her shooting the poor guy out of her apartment). Whatever she experienced as a child has made her guarded, not an overly paranoid, bitchy cartoon. She feels like an authentic character rather than a plot device that’s there to escort audiences through the requisite scares and backstory investigations. When you watch her dig up her mother’s past and uncover Diana’s long-buried history, you’re invested because you want to see her piece together a puzzle that will also help to put her family back together.
Palmer’s performance is nicely pitched: Rebecca is described by her mother as someone who acts like she’s strong, and that bears itself out in a turn that’s defined by a quiet confidence and a hint of vulnerability. Even though some of her motivations with protecting her little brother aren’t coming from the best place (she’s initially interfering just to lash out at her mom), Palmer generates some genuine sympathy without having to resort to overcooked hysterics. Her chemistry with her on-screen brother and boyfriend emerges as the film’s unexpected backbone—during the film’s third act, I came to actually worry for these three especially because they’re just good people. Where a lesser film might be especially tempted to turn Bret into an overbearing asshole, Lights Out finds a value in his affability: he’s an actual nice guy, as opposed to those fedora-wearing, m’lady “nice guy” MRA assholes.
As such, the final third of the film plays very well. In fact, an already sharp script becomes downright clever when it sneakily inverts the typical dynamic so many films resort to. Usually, a morbid curiosity drives this sort of thing, as you find yourself wondering just where the ghost will appear and how it’ll eventually dispatch them in (hopefully) gruesome or terrifying fashion. Here, though, you find yourself delighted at how this resourceful, scrappy bunch keeps finding solutions to fending off the ghost with the various lights at their disposal. This is the rare film where I found myself wondering “why don’t they just…”, only to see one of the characters actually make that common sense decision. One character—who I thought for sure was a goner considering the heavy-handedness of a certain exchange—won me over completely with his refusal to let this asshole ghost take him down.
To be honest, I wish the film always had this same sort of rollicking, rousing verve to it—again, the first half really borders on being generic and in need of a spark. Thankfully, it finds just enough of one, so much so that I went from bemoaning the miniscule body count to actively hoping none of the characters would die (though the movie does find a nice way of splitting the difference here). It’s hard to put a value on a horror movie that’s capable of pulling that off, so I’ll refrain from dismissing Lights Out as yet another ghost movie.
A more level-headed assessment of Lights Out is that is another ghost movie, albeit one that’s solidly put together with an intriguing mythology (with a closed-loop one to boot—there’s no lame final jumps or sequel teases here) and affable characters. Sandberg has some obvious chops, so it’s not surprising to see he’s earned Wan’s endorsement beyond this solid debut (his next gig is Annabelle 2, currently due next year). Lights Out is perhaps only a more distinctive score away from being something truly special; instead, it settles for being Wan-lite, which isn’t the worst thing to which it could aspire. Some movies are destined to fill a space reserved for breezy*, fun little spook shows, and this one does so with just enough gusto to distinguish itself.
*Excluding the credits, Lights Out is less than 80 minutes long—that alone is enough to earn my endorsement.
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