These days, it’s becoming exceedingly hard to do anything even remotely original within the horror genre. Even when someone figures out something that hasn’t been done before, it’s quickly absconded and turned into a formula that makes it harder for the next filmmaker to use similar tricks to scare an audience.
Based on director David Sandberg’s short film of the same name, Lights Out enters the search for original horror with a very simple but original visual idea of a shadowy figure that only appears when the lights are out or dimmed. The lights go on and the figure disappears. It sounds simple and not particularly scary on paper, but if you’ve seen the trailer for the movie, you might have an inkling of how this can be used to freak out even the staunchest horror buff.
Darkness is still one of the outlying fears inherent in all of us: what you can’t see might actually hurt you, and that’s used in such a compelling way in Sandberg’s feature film debut it almost makes up for some of the film’s weaknesses.
We’re introduced to this idea as the film opens at a textile warehouse late at night where a worker doing inventory first spots something in the shadows that disappears when she turns on the lights. A few minutes later, her boss is talking to his son via Facetime before he goes into the warehouse and is killed by this same figure.
We next meet Teresa Palmer’s Rebecca, a young woman with personal issues who is trying to figure out her relationship with Bret (Alexander DiPersia)—he wants to get more serious, but she’s not even ready for him to move in. Rebecca is actually the older sister of Martin (Gabriel Bateman), the boy we saw earlier Facetiming with his now dead stepfather. Martin called his estranged sister, because their mutual mother Sophie (Maria Bello) has been behaving oddly, having suffered from depression years earlier, a condition that’s returned with the death of her second husband. Rebecca tries to step in and care for Martin but Child Services sends him back with his mother.
We soon learn that shadowy figure is what’s left of Diana, a childhood friend of their mother who suffered from a skin condition that wouldn’t allow her to be in light for any amount of time. There’s much more to Diana’s backstory and how she became this mysterious and murderous figure, but that seems better left for when you watch the film. Either way, Diana is a horror antagonist similar to Samara from The Ring and others, only with more of a personal connection to her victims.
Produced by James Wan (The Conjuring), the film has all the benchmarks found in his movies, including strong character development and storytelling, although in this case it feels slightly more unbalanced between the drama and the scares. There’s a point in the movie where it relies too heavily on the drama and the exposition, losing sight of why most will be interested in it, but it more than makes up for it during a fast-paced last act where the four main characters are trying to outsmart Diana before she kills them all. They find a lot of inventive ways to have the four of them interact and counteract Diana’s ability to get around in the dark after she finds a way to take out the entire power grid in their location.
Lights Out might have been a complete disaster without such a strong cast, but Palmer in particular brings more to the character of Rebecca than a less skilled actress, making Rebecca infinitely likable, especially in her rapport with DiPersia. Bateman (previously in Annabelle) also does more to make Martin more interesting than most horror movie kids. The quality of the acting and writing puts the film on a level with last year’s It Follows where it feels there’s a strong vision at work behind the camera.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), the movie is left in a place where the story is really over and it might be hard to find a way to do a sequel, but maybe that’s a good thing. We don’t need a sequel to every horror movie. Then again, for better or worse, all the best horror movies had sequels, with the exception maybe of Rosemary’s Baby, so if people really want to see more of Diana, they can probably figure out a way to bring her back.
Lights Out is an impressive debut by Sandberg that offers enough inventive scares out of a fairly simple idea and gives you characters you care enough about that you’re on the edge of your seat hoping they can overcome what’s waiting for them in the dark.
Lights Out opens nationwide on Friday, July 22.