What happens if you take a Steven Moffat-alike horror concept, but remove the mad man in a box and all the other comfortable Doctor Who trappings, and sub in some family drama and serious psychological scares? As it turns out, you get a taut 81 minutes of effective terror.
Lights Out is a film that leaves a lasting impression. This is because it preys on our most primordial fears and one of the oldest questions in The Big Book Of Scary Things: what’s going on in the dark?
Director David F Sandberg – who also wrote and directed the short film on which Eric Heisserer (2010’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Thing remake, Final Destination 5) based the feature-length Lights Out screenplay – isn’t the first person to tackle this sort of topic on screen, and he certainly won’t be the last. But I’d argue that he’s delivered one of the most effective explorations to date.
Sanberg proves himself as an immense new talent here, on his first feature project. With Lights Out he uses several faculties of filmmaking available – framing, lighting, camera movements, story pacing, props, sound (one use of surround sound in the film is still rattling around my ears) – to create an unpredictable viewing experience, which veers skilfully between subtle atmospheric hair-raising and huge jump scares at pace.
Lights Out ebbs and flows out of step with your expectations, delivering shocks when you weren’t anticipating them and moments of quiet just when you were ready to leap out of your skin. It’s a nerve-racking experience to say the least, which will have you flinching at every noise or movement from your fellow cinemagoers.
To spell out the exact nature of the threat at the heart of Lights Out would be to spoil the fun entirely. It’s a film I knew very little about going in (besides the fact it’s already a big hit in the USA and a sequel has been ordered), which made it all the more unsettling to watch. I’d encourage you to do the same: don’t seek out spoilers in advance.
The basic set up is a fairly classic one. There’s a creepy house, a bickering family, and even a cocksure boyfriend character that every slasher villain going would queue up for. This isn’t quite a clichéd film, though, but rather one that toys with horror conventions in order to unsettle the audience. Lights Out has no interest in playing to a rulebook.
Heisserer’s script takes these familiar elements and spins them in fresh ways. Again, though, to tell you exactly who does what and why certain characters surprised me would spoil the film altogether. Suffice it to say, there was one beat in the final third of the film that garnered a spontaneous round of applause at the press screening. And a couple of frames before that, gasps gave way to laughter in the space of a second.
There are only minor problems: a side plot strand that goes nowhere, a bit of ‘telling rather than showing’ when it comes to building up characters, and a brace of sometimes-overly-hammy performances. While Maria Bello and Gabriel Bateman are terrific as a mum and her young son, Teresa Palmer and Alexander DiPersia are a little one-note as a vaguely-into-rock-music twenty-something couple. But, saying that, it seems like a bit of a non-point to complain about shaky acting in a low budget horror film. (The budget for this was less than $5 million.)
Also, the script and the direction are masterful enough to make that tiny group of flaws very easy to ignore. The prospect of Lights Out becoming a recurring franchise is very welcome, but Sandberg and Heisserer have a mountain to climb if they’re aiming to top this.
One tip: maybe get a lift back from the cinema if you can. Streets lights really don’t offer enough coverage.