In the new horror picture “Lights Out”—directed by David F Sandberg and co written by Eric Heisserer and Sandberg—evil comes in the form of Diana, a supernatural being powered by grief and anger, who resides in the shadows. When the lights are on, you’re safe. When the lights go out, all bets are off. It’s as easy as that. Of course that doesn’t mean Diana can’t cause the power to inexplicably go out on occasion.
The simplicity of the film’s antagonist proves to be a double edged sword.
On the bright side, it creates consistency in regards to film continuity and the mythology it establishes. In other words, there aren’t any major rule violations or narrative curveballs that signal lazy screenwriting. Diana can’t ever do her thing when the lights are on. Additionally, Diana’s sensitivity to light isn’t an empty gimmick-- there’s a legitimate reason that’s clearly established and makes sense within the film’s logic.
At the same time, this simplicity leads to predictability and repetitiveness in the scare department. “Lights Out” is powered by jump scares. Well, mainly one style of jump scare repeated over and over. A character sees Diana standing still in the dark. They turn the light on. She’s gone. They turn the light off again and she’s closer. Then she attacks!
In general, I don’t like jump scares. I think they’re cheap and lazy. One or two well-placed jump scares can sometimes be effective but too often they’re overused. I prefer horror films that create a creepy, unnerving atmosphere. Horror films that cause terror and paranoia to slowly build up in the viewer until they become uncomfortable; terror and paranoia that sticks with them long after the movie has ended. Jump scares go for the immediate jolt-- a feeling that quickly evaporates.
While there are a few well-placed jump scares in “Lights Out,” there are simply too many and after a while you can see them coming from a mile away. The last third of the pictures verges on silly and delirious rather than unsettling and tense. Therefore, I can’t say I was all that scared or uncomfortable during the film. This isn’t going to be one of those horror films that stays with me over a long period of time.
And yet, there are still pleasures to be found--namely that the filmmakers keep the human element in tact. Horror films aren’t exempt from having strong characters. The action revolves around Rebecca (Theresa Palmer), her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) and mother Sophie (Maria Bello). They’re in grave danger because Diana has a special attachment to Sophie. The pictures takes time to make these three into likable and multifaceted characters. Rebecca is an intelligent and strong protagonist that constantly takes charge and goes through a visible transformation at the end. Martin is resilient in his own right and never gets on your nerves like some children in horror movies do. Meanwhile, veteran actor Bello brings dimension and sympathy to the cliché “crazy mother” character. On top of that, the filmmakers take time to establish and develop the non-supernatural dilemmas that plague the family, such as the tension and falling out between Rebecca and her mother. More than anything, Diana is powered by the negative energy radiating off the human characters.
At eighty-one minutes, “Lights Out” is relatively free of narrative fat. The filmmakers keep things tightknit and self-contained. There aren’t any ghost hunters or psychics, or an overabundance of one-note victims. Everything is wisely kept within the intimate sphere of the family. And the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. With horror—the shorter and tighter the movie is the better.
So far 2016 has been a strong year for horror. “The Witch,” “The Wailing,” and “Green Room” are all exemplary pictures. “Lights Out” doesn’t ascend to that level; it’s not as ambitious or thought provoking and it’s certainly not as creepy or uncomfortable. Still, “Lights Out” is a decent little horror flick that’s worth devoting an evening to.