Back in 2013, a measly two-and-a-half minute horror short called Lights Out went viral and gained some recognition for its creator, David F. Sandberg. It’s a simple short, but it was notable for its freaky concept of a murderous creature that lives within complete darkness.
Fast-forward just three years later, and we now have a full-length, major studio-produced interpretation of that short. Bearing the same name and original creator, Sandberg’s feature-length directorial debut, Lights Out, is a horror flick that provides a remarkable central concept, plenty of earned scares, and impressive special effects, but is unfortunately bogged down by some shoddily mismanaged plot lines and a rather unceremonious and hollow ending.
Lights Out opens rather spectacularly in a scene that effectively introduces the monstrous star of the film, and sets the stage for the proceedings. The monster in question is Diana, a sort of demonic entity that lives in the shadows. In the opening, a warehouse owner named Paul is closing up shop when he sees Diana’s silhouette in a dark room. As the lights are switched back on, the silhouette disappears, and materializes closer once the lights go out again. Needless to say, Paul does his best to survive, but is quickly dispatched.
We pick up a couple of months later and turn focus to Paul’s family, including his wife Sophie (Maria Bello), his adult daughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), and young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Following Paul’s sudden death, Sophie has completely lost it. Martin finds his mother talking to herself, and constantly mentioning another person named Diana, whom Martin cannot see. Martin also has a hard time sleeping, as he hears things in the dark corners of his home every night. Martin eventually reaches out to his older sister, Rebecca, in order to help their mother and put a stop to Diana.
There’s not much more to the main through line of the plot, although Rebecca eventually does find out the backstory to Diana, which includes a childhood relationship with her mother Sophie. Alas, these moments aren’t fleshed out nearly enough, making for a nonsensical explanation for how Diana became what she is.
The protagonists of the film don’t fare much better. Rebecca is an intelligent lead, although fairly run-of-the-mill for this kind of movie, and the same goes for the character of Martin. Teresa Palmer does well with what she’s given, but Gabriel Bateman overacts in his role as Martin. I know Bateman’s just a child, so I can’t fault him too much. Unfortunately for him, it’s sort of tough not to criticize his poor acting after having recently finished Netflix’s Stranger Things, which stars multiple child actors of much higher caliber. Maria Bello as Sophie has the potential to be the most engrossing character of the film, but her screen-time is kept to a minimum, resulting in another lackluster character.
The standout character is Rebecca’s charming boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia). I was surprised by this, as he starts as a total throwaway character, and someone you bet is going to die as soon as he’s introduced. It’s simply the way these movies work. However, due to general likability — stemming both from the character’s writing and charisma of DiPersia — Bret easily becomes the best character in the entire film; a fan-favorite, if you will. The crowd I saw it with seemed to agree, as much of the at-capacity audience applauded his character during a standout moment nearing the finale.
It’s easy to dismiss Lights Out because of its mostly uninspired characters and unremarkable plot, but it has more going for it. Lights Out stands out entirely due to its promising premise, and the film makes for a very fun, little horror flick — easy to forget, but totally enjoyable in the moment, especially remarkable thanks to the well-done special effects that make Diana’s character so terrifying in the first place. It’s notable, too, that Sandberg and writer Eric Heisseser serve up a wealth of profoundly frightening moments throughout the entirety of the breezy 80-minute run time. Perhaps a few too many of the scares rely on cheap, predictable jump scare tactics, but for the most part, Sandberg utilizes his best idea in some formidable ways.
As I thought about the film more, I quickly came to the realization that Lights Out shares many thematic similarities with one of the absolute best horror films of the decade, The Babadook. Both films tackle similar subjects: the tragic loss of a loved one, the depression and psychosis that can follow, and the ramifications this has on a family — more specifically the relationship between a young boy and his unstable, widowed mother.
But whereas The Babadook handles this theme correctly and with the utmost respect, Lights Out has a seriously flawed resolution that says some rather misguided things about how to deal with the crippling diagnoses of which Sophie has here. It’s almost downright offensive — not only to an engaged audience caught in the moment, waiting for a satisfying conclusion that never comes, but also to those who deal with depression back in reality. It truly is head-scratching how the film got distributed with an ending like this.
Lights Out just barely manages to avoid mediocrity, falling somewhere around a 6/10 score range. It’s a total popcorn movie — enjoyable in the moment and best enjoyed with company, but falters upon further inspection. That said, it’s especially tough not to recommend a horror fan sees this film. In the end, Lights Out is fun fluff, and maybe that’s exactly what we need more of in the horror genre right now.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor