lights_out_3Year: 2016
Director(s): David F. Sandberg
Writer(s): Eric Heisserer
Region of Origin: US
Rating: PG-13
Digital, Color, 80 mins

Synopsis: A woman and her brother are haunted by a creature that only appears when the lights go out. (Source)

Expanding a short film into feature length isn’t always the easiest or most sensible thing to do, but Lights Out, adapted by David F. Sandberg (from his own short) and scripted by Eric Heisserer is impressive even if it struggles to find its own voice. There’s a lot to admire in the ambitious debut, one that plays to the strengths of its central gimmick (there’s an evil entity that can only appear in the dark) while finding ways to keep things fresh, putting equal emphasis on both scares and character. The final product balances compelling family drama, metaphor for mental illness and a playful yet palpable atmosphere. If you’re a horror fan, you can see where each of the film’s elements have been lifted, but the scares are well crafted and more importantly, the emotion works, resulting in a solid, promising debut that proves Sandberg is just warming up.

After the grisly death of his father, a young boy named Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is tormented by a presence that can only be seen with the lights off. The shadowy figure may also have dominion over his mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), who spends nights talking to the shadows and locking herself in her room. Unable to sleep or trust his own mind, Martin reaches out to his estranged sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who reluctantly takes Martin in after he’s neglected at home. This only leaves their mother in ruin and makes the malevolent force angrier, however, chasing Martin and Rebecca no matter where they go, and forcing the pair to dig deep into their family’s past for answers before it’s too late.

Even though Sandberg isn’t rewriting the rulebook, there’s a sincerity and ingenuity at play that makes up for the film’s familiarity. At its core, this is a story of a family being torn apart by past secrets and regret, and if you remove the supernatural elements, it mostly holds up as engrossing drama. As mystery and supernatural developments unfold parallel to one another, Sandberg uses a tragic mythology (and a quirky origin story plucked from the glory days of J-horror) to thematically and visually push character and thrills forward with a consistent rhythm. Even then, Sandberg is smart to not repeat himself too often, with confrontations which force characters to scramble for a new light source as his villain gets smarter and more aggressive. There’s also what appears to be a nice use of practical effects, with an eerie creature design that looks scary yet feels grounded. It all leads to an extended, climactic showdown that has a fun, haunted house feel, utilizing cell phone lights, a blacklight, and a few other things I won’t spoil to end inventively strong. Speaking of the film’s ending, it’s nice to see a mainstream horror film have an actual ending that isn’t a cop out or trying to set up a sequel – it instead comes from a place that’s emotionally cathartic, and doesn’t rely on a false scare right before the credits.

lights_out_1The performances are another one of the film’s strong suits. As Martin, Gabriel Bateman mixes innocence and a thoughtfulness that give his scenes more of a psychological slant – he genuinely feels like he cares about his family and is trying to keep them together, no matter what the cost. As his older sister Rebecca, Teresa Palmer has a fitting arc, going from apathetic and selfish to someone trying to search for the truth. Palmer’s bond with Bateman is the soul of the film, and together, the pair make a duo that sells the film’s emotion. Maria Bello’s Sophie is the tortured matriarch of the family, having almost all of the film’s weightiest scenes. There’s a scene early off that is wrenching thanks to her, and she expertly evokes a duality that makes it hard to pinpoint her true allegiances. Alexander DiPersia may be the film’s biggest surprise however, as Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret. When we first meet him, he just seems like he just seems like any generic supporting character trying to get some action. Layers are gradually peeled back however, and we realize that he’s a genuinely good guy, looking out for Rebecca and her family, and in many ways becoming the heart of the film. Without overshadowing the strong female characters, he steals a few scenes of his own, with some genuine charisma and a sequence that’s bound to get the biggest cheers.

While a lot of elements from Lights Out aren’t new, what the film does well, it does really well, easily making up for any predictability and standing above most of its uninspired peers. From the strong characterization, to its emotional anchor, it treads both visceral and psychological scares with a playful accessibility that’s hard to ignore. As a debut, the film ain’t no slouch, and if it’s any indication, Sandberg’s got a bright future ahead of him.

SG