Nutshell: Creepy, spooky, and effective as hell. Yes, the mental illness vs. actually being haunted plot point could have been a bit less Baby Be Crazy, and the sound editing could use a tweak or two to limit the number of overblown and unnecessary Ba-BOOOOM eardrum explosions. But director David F. Sandberg does a scary good job turning his short film into a feature length fear-fest. Grade: A-
“Don’t leave me. EVER!”
We’ve all had that one strange friend. That one who was ever so slightly off. A bit strange. And, to paraphrase Margaret Cho, if you don’t know who that is in your group, it’s probably you. But nowadays it’s time to let your freak flag fly…unless that flag’s message has anything to do with haunting people and killing anyone who gets in the way of that. Then maybe you put that flag away. Go to the flag store and get another one. There’s plenty out there. May I suggest one with a happy unicorn?
In Lights Out, Twenty-something Rebecca (Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies) finds out her young step-brother Martin hasn’t been sleeping. It seems their mother Sophie (Maria Bello) has been having depressive episodes after the (VERY bloody) death of her second husband Paul, much the same way she did when Rebecca’s father left. And Martin can’t sleep because Sophie keeps talking to something (ba-dumm) that you can only see when it’s dark. Hey, did you know that Sophie went into in-patient treatment for depression when she was a kid? And she met a girl named Diana who had a terrible reaction to sunlight and died horribly? NO? Well, you do now.
As I’ve mentioned before, Lights Out is based on the super-effective short film by David F. Sandberg. Thanks to all of the buzz – and his effective use of light and timing – James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious) jumped on as producer. And the combination is genre dynamite. Things kick off immediately, with warehouse employee Esther (Lotta Losten, the lead in the original short film) seeing things in the big, dark, mannequin filled warehouse. (Why’d it have to be mannequins?) Billy Burke (Revolution) plays business owner/warehouse guy/Sophie’s not-long-for-this-world hubby, who finds out a bit too late that maybe you should be afraid of the dark. From Sophie’s huge shaded home to Rebecca’s tiny, heavy metal themed apartment, Diana’s crackling, creepy influence takes over the lives of the threesome, as well as Rebecca’s kinda boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), and pretty much anyone who stands in betwen Diana’s obsessive connection to Sophie.
While a lot of boogeyman movies has the death count amp up off-screen with no real aftermath in sight, with Lights Out there’s that same off-screen/in darkness death blow, but viewers get to see the aftermath of Diana’s grisly work. And the FX is excellent. Not unbelievably bloody, but still a hefty amount of red when it’s warranted. Plus, for some reason never specified, many of Diana’s victims end up with burnt-out eye sockets. Very cool, and very unsettling. Getting to see what happens to the victims brings this ghost story into the brutal end of the horror gene pool. And it works.
But…I kinda wish that the basic idea of the film was handled a bit better. See, Diana appears to Sophie when Sophie is sliding back into depression. And while depression can manifest in many ways depending on the person suffering, in this film Sophie feels like a strangely watered down cliché from The Snake Pit. It could be because Sophie is suffering from lack of sleep as well as depression, but it’s never fleshed out, and she ends up looking like a kook who’s under-written. Only the grace of the amazingly talented Maria Bello saves her.
Now about that sound editing. For the most part, things in that department are excellent. Above and beyond in some cases; in a few scenes the sound of Diana’s scratching comes from only one or two speakers off to the side of the theater, giving a “it’s right behind you” quality that knocks it out of the park. And there are moments when Diana’s creepy crackling builds from a whisper to a louder reveal, typically before she jumps. But sometimes things get too loud, and it becomes eardrum endurance rather than a chilling compliment to the action. It’s tough to let yourself scream if you’re too busy thinking about how loud that damn booming is. Those gaffes aren’t enough to hobble the film, but they did pull me out of the action a time or two when the sound took over what was going on onscreen, tempering the horror for me. If we’re talking about a powerful, creepy ghost that exists in shadow, the majority of the sound should be just as mysterious. Just sayin’.
Otherwise, Lights Out definitely elevates the jump scare to an art form. There’s plenty of silly “why’d they do that” stuff here, like walking around in the dark when you know damn well what’s going on, or heading down to the windowless basement in the middle of the night. But there’s even more smart decisions, like prepping for the possibility of Diana causing a power outage by grabbing candles and stashing flashlights around the house. And hey, getting the cops! How novel! Good to see that all those teen deaths in 80s slasher flicks tightened up the horror gene pool.
The climax is absolutely great, with non-stop action and plenty of scares. Me? I knew how things would play out, and how things would basically wrap up, but I still found myself on the edge of my seat while it all happened. Probably because Sandberg knows how to flesh out a story, rather than simply taking the easy route of padding his short film. Lights Out the short film has the same basic premise of a spooky thing in the darkness, but a completely different plot. And screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5, The Thing) knows how to go from slow burn to wham-bam bloody ma’am. Submit yourself to the scary.