The fear of the dark, and of what the dark may conceal, is perhaps one of the most universal of fears, and the horror genre knows how to use for frightening effects. Lights Out features a creature that can only appear in the dark, and it manages to find a lot of frights in this premise – where it suffers, however, is in the real-world parallel it is eager to draw.
When Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) left home, she thought that all of her childhood fears were behind her. As a young girl growing up, she was never really sure what was real when the lights went out at night. Now, her little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is experiencing the same unexplained and terrifying events that jeopardized her safety and sanity. Holding a mysterious attachment to their mother (Maria Bello) that is rooted in her past, a supernatural entity has returned with a vengeance to torment the entire family, and it soon transpires that the only way to save themselves is to help their mother.
Horror is a genre based in confronting real life fears and using monsters or baddies to tackle them. In the case of Lights Out, it is an attempt to deal with the issue of depression and mental illness – how it affects those suffering with it, and their families. Working horror films like this doesn’t really impact on the scare factor if it is done well (think 2014’s The Babadook, whose monster was a manifestation of dealing with grief), even if it is quite as heavy-handed as it is here. It does come with an unfortunate and very dangerous ending, however – if Diana the creature represents the spectre of depression, the way she is dealt with (I’m not going to spoil it, but you can probably figure it out) should ring warning bells at the highest level. If you’re going to carry a social issue agenda in your movie, you have to think its implications.
This story is anchored in three actors, and they are all fairly strong. Palmer helms the film, and must deal with the human drama of looking out for her brother and mother as well as the horror aspects. Bello is a particularly seasoned actress and although she spends most of the movie as little more than a bunch of tics, she knows how to channel the emotion quite easily. I also highlight Bateman, who manages to avoid the almost mandatory horror child qualification of being a poor actor, instead being realistic and carrying the level of maturity a child in his situation would. The drama storylines are somewhat basic and sketchy because of the short runtime, but these three carry them well.
We should also spend a bit of time talking about the conceit here – Diana is a creature who can only appear in the dark, vanishing whenever the light is pointed at her (the reasons for this are explained in a massively expository scene towards the start of the film. I don’t mind exposition in horror movies too much – you need them so we can get on with the film – but I take umbrage at a scene later on where information is quite literally scrawled on the wall). Towards the end, the strength of the gimmick starts to dry up – there are only so many times that monster can be there, not there, THERE before it starts to get overly repetitive, but the briskness of the movie and the well-managed frights mean this isn’t too much of a problem.
David Sandberg adapted this movie from a short film he made a while back, and I imagine that was probably the best format for it – although the film is short, it doesn’t quite have the dramatic foundation or the variety of frights to make it fully to the finish line. Despite that, it is an efficient horror film that has a good premise it uses well, and if you can ignore the horrible conclusion of its mental health parallel, it will offer the jumps that you’re looking for.
Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Teresa Palmer (Rebecca), Gabriel Bateman (Martin), Alexander DiPersia (Bret), Billy Burke (Paul), Maria Bello (Sophie), Alicia Vela-Bailey (Diana)
Running Time: 81 Mins