Darkness is an element of horror films that invokes our inner fears and drives the story with our own imagination. While a good film can show us what we are afraid of, it’s always worse to catch only a glimpse and then imagine what may be lurking past our field of vision. I’m not saying you should never show the monster, but proper editing can heighten the suspense and prevent us from getting too comfortable. The film Vanishing on 7th Street used the concept of darkness as the end of all things and removed the world of its human population, leaving only a few survivors to attempt some kind of life. It wasn’t a good film and suffered not just from the dialogue, but from giving the villain too much power to the point where no salvation was even remotely feasible. Lights Out is one of several attempts in recent years to play off the premise of the darkness as a malevolent entity and it’s, for the most part, a surprising success.
In Lights Out, directed by David F. Sandberg, Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is a young boy living with his mother Sophie(Maria Bello), a manic depressive who talks to herself and never leaves the house. After a few bad nights and nightmares, social services gets Martin’s estranged sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) involved. As Rebecca attempts to help her brother and mother cope with this family crisis, a mysterious being appears, without warning, in the crevices and recesses of their home; and pretty much anywhere Martin or Rebecca try to escape. Their only solution is to keep the lights on and stay away from the shadows. Rebecca’s friend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) is not sure what to make of all this, but begins to help unravel the mystery surrounding her mother and the dark force trying to kill them.
The overall atmosphere of the film is fairly entertaining. It uses any moment when the character on-screen is engulfed in darkness as an opportunity to tantalize the audience with frightening imagery and scratching noises. It’s in these scenes that the movie really holds your interest because, it not only establishes the rules in which the monster must live, it forces our main characters to develop creative ways to defend themselves. The survival plan is all about trial and error and sometimes your predator is adapting to your ideas just as quickly as you adapt to theirs, which can create situations that are both tense and funny.
I would have found this film to be two-dimensional with regard to the creature of darkness if it weren’t for a pretty compelling back story that draws you in and makes you care about a resolution. It’s an interesting story, but it should have been introduced to us at the beginning of the film rather than in the middle. Instead of a truly frightening opening scene, it’s just a really good scare without any context. What also takes away some of that strength in storytelling is the lack of a proper buildup throughout the movie. You do feel a sense of anticipation leading up to the final confrontation, but the film would have had more impact if they had spent additional time building up the suspense in earlier scenes with the monster.
Besides some genuine scares, where the film also hits the mark is the chemistry between the characters. The actors have a great rapport with each other and it adds to the sincerity of the scenes. The young actor who plays Martin, Gabriel Bateman, gives some older-than-his-years remarks in every conversation he has with both his sister and his mother. It would seem unrealistic, but, in all dysfunctional families, the ability to process things rationally, and with a mature head, is one of the best coping mechanisms a child can have. It ages you far sooner than you would like, but hopefully it prepares you to survive similar emotional situations in the future. It can also cause you to go the other way and shut down completely, cutting off all ties with your family and avoiding serious relationships, which is where we find Teresa Palmer’s character. The social dynamic of this family is one of the key components in this film’s premise and that is why it is so important that they got it right.
Lights Out is a pleasant, scary film with a decent story, but its execution leaves a lot of potential on the cutting room floor. The atmosphere reminded me of The Ring, but it doesn’t let the scenes breathe and take on a life of their own like it should. At 81 minutes running time, this film doesn’t wear out its welcome, but maybe another 15 minutes could have fleshed out minor details and back story while also enhancing the suspense. I would have loved to know more about the monster before all the madness began just to get some context and put myself in the right frame of mind for what is to come. Again I’m still a fan of leaving things to the imagination, but it has to start somewhere first. Set the foundation and let it grow from there. Otherwise it’s just a haunted house with no emotional investment. Teresa Palmer does a great job as well as Gabriel Bateman. Maria Bello’s portrayal as the unhinged mother with a dark past is one of the best parts of this movie and gives gravitas to the story’s originality. It won’t be a standout in the pantheon of horror films, but it does get an honorable mention for being appealing, funny, and above all creating a creature that is more frightening than the film it belongs to.
LIGHTS OUT:[usr 3.5]
About Lights Out
Synopsis: When her little brother, Martin, experiences the same events that once tested her sanity, Rebecca works to unlock the truth behind the terror, which brings her face to face with an entity that has an attachment to their mother, Sophie.
Director: David F. Sandberg
Writers: Eric Heisserer
Stars: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke
Runtime: 81 Minutes