Editor’s Note: Lights Out opens in wide theatrical release today, July 22, 2016.
Several years ago, a little known Swedish filmmaker, David F. Sandberg, released a three-minute horror short into the wild. A near-perfect combination of premise and execution, it became a viral hit. The story could have ended there, but horror auteur James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious, and Saw series) and his production company, Atomic Monster, had another idea entirely: Turn Sandberg’s horror short into a full-length film, with Sandberg making the jump to feature filmmaker. With an able assist from veteran screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s (The Thing premake, Final Destination 5, The Nightmare on Elm Street remake) lean, economical screenplay, as well as collaborators, including Wan’s Furious 7 cinematographer Marc Spicer, Sandberg has crafted the equivalent of an impressive “sizzle reel,” a promo for his skills and talents as a horror filmmaker.
Early exposition dumps clear the way for the not-so-subtle shocks and jump scares that follow over Lights Out’s brisk, brief running time.
Lights Out leans heavily on its seemingly simple premise: A spectral, demonic figure who lives in the dark and moves in the shadows. She plays a variation of the old schoolyard game, “Red Light,” where the designated “it” kid shouts, “1, 2, 3, red light!” while the other kids – temporarily frozen – furiously race to his or her position (whoever touches him or her first becomes the next “it” kid). In Lights Out, the spectral, demonic figure can only strike in the dark. With the lights on, she’s harmless. With the lights off, she moves ever closer, eventually striking with feral rage at her enemies. The opening scene, set in a creepily underlit warehouse essentially duplicates the viral short not just once, but twice, first with Sandberg’s wife, Lotta Losten, and immediately afterward with the ill-fated Paul (Billy Burke). Every subsequent scene, up until the closing credits, essentially repeats the formula, light/dark, light/dark, almost each time capped with violence or the threat of violence.
Paul’s preteen son, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), soon emerges as a central character, second only to his older half-sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a punkish twenty-something who lives above a tattoo parlor in relative comfort without a visible means of income and an unkempt hipster and romantic partner, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), who wants to take their relationship to the next level. Rebecca has commitment issues with a capital “C,” commitment issues tied to the mysterious disappearance of her biological father years earlier, her mother’s remarriage to Paul, and her mother’s subsequent descent into mental illness. Lights Out plays the reductive card (one trauma, one explanation) heavily, but it also functions as firm base or foundation for everything that follows, both how and why Rebecca behaves the way she does and her strained relationship with her mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), a woman who otherwise would be on the verge of a nervous breakdown if Lights Out wasn’t supernatural horror, just psychological horror.
Sandberg and Heisserer pare down exposition to a minimum, relying on Rebecca finding Paul’s research into Sophie’s past and Sophie’s relationship with a young girl, Diana, as a teen decades earlier, rather than the usual, rote approach of sending Rebecca and Bret into the musty archives of a mental institution, library, or other state records. For some, that narrative shortcut will feel like a cheat, but to Sandberg and Heisserer’s credit, it’s not. Early exposition dumps clear the way for the not-so-subtle shocks and jump scares that follow over Lights Out brisk, brief running time (81 minutes, including credits). Borrowing an idea or two from the Ring series and another idea or two from Wan’s Insidious series, the ghost-demon in Lights Out haunts the characters, not the house they live in, making escape futile. And with a large, seemingly empty house, perpetually underlit due to Sophie’s aversion to both light and the outside world, Sandberg and Heisserer have the perfect setting for wringing every possible variation for their premise. And it works repeatedly with metronomic proficiency, right through the final, cathartic moments.
With an able assist from veteran screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s lean, economical screenplay, as well as collaborators, including Wan’s Furious 7 cinematographer Marc Spicer, David F. Sandberg has crafted the equivalent of an impressive “sizzle reel,” a promo for his skills and talents as a horror filmmaker.
They even let a little humor slip through the grim cracks, humor based in part on tweaking audience expectations (e.g., where the scares originate, who will live/die before the credits roll, the inevitable sequel-ready denouement). And with a cast, including a tic- and affectation-free Bateman as Martin, a grounded, serious turn by Palmer as Rebecca, and a surprisingly balanced, non-histrionic performance by Bello, that sells premise and its execution minus any of the broad, campy caricatures that can and do fatally undermine lesser efforts, Lights Out delivers unreservedly on its modest aims: To make audiences afraid of the dark, to make audiences afraid of what they can’t see in the dark, all over again.
With a solid cast and taut, almost reductive plot, Lights Out is a modest horror film that delivers on its promise to make audiences afraid of the dark again.