Overview: A mother’s mental state conjures up a violent entity which only exists in the dark, and her two children struggle to overcome it. Warner Bros.; 2016; Rated R; 81 minutes.
On: David Sandberg’s Lights Out, based on the 2013 viral short of the same name, is quite an ingenious horror film. It manipulates an inevitable and primordial childhood phobia which, while it does disappear with age, still manages to be inescapable. By mirroring childhood with Gabriel Bateman’s ten-year-old Martin and contrasting it with the presentness of Teresa Palmer’s Rebecca, Sandberg invokes youth and adulthood and unites them both under a similar fear.
Sandberg’s confidence in the genre throughout Lights Out is evident. In a rejection of anticipation, he turns what would appear to be a film founded on jump scares into a tense game of cat and mouse. Whereas it is commonplace in horror films to serve up respite from the terror in order for reflection, this film instead finds creative and feasible ways to keep its characters from truly being safe. Even during daytime, for example, when light can be seen peaking in through the curtains, a looming sense of danger remains, never truly dissipating until the film’s closing moments. It is a suspenseful and merciless 80 minutes.
Furthermore, the characters we are presented with in Lights Out, despite shaky dialogue and iffy development, are undeniably charismatic. Resourceful beyond belief (putting duct tape over the light switch, finding light sources in the most desperate and dim of situations, etc.), they truly feel worthy of our time and well wishes. As far as performances go, veteran actress Maria Bello stands out as the grieving mother, whose depiction of grief is chilling, believable, and above all, easily empathetic. As far as characters go, Bret, the seemingly dismissable boyfriend portrayed adequately by the less-experienced Alexander DiPersia, is an absolute delight to watch. There are so many moments where he could turn and understandably flee the situation, but armed with a nobility unfound in other horror-movie-significant-others and poised to be a fan favorite, he hardly disappoints.
The use of the central villain in Lights Out as an embodiment of depression is blatant, yet it is so easy to get wrapped up in the terror of the situation for the reality of its pessimistic message to not hit until afterwards. Gradually, as the credits roll, fear and tension are replaced by a harrowing sense of hopelessness and despair, as the film’s slightly irreverent ending offers no light at the end of the tunnel.
Off: An unnecessary score weaves in and out of scenes, disrupting rather than elevating. Darkness is well acquainted with silence, and obvious beats stressing certain moments halts the momentum. In many situations, Sandberg asserts his dominance in a scene and toys with emotions, before the bass and thump of the score interrupt and make it generic.
While neon lights and blacklit faces are beautiful to look at, the rest of the cinematography feels a bit of a disappointing fare. For such a creative film reliant on lighting and framing for maximum effect, its whole aesthetic just feels a bit underwhelming.
Overall: Lights Out is one of those rare horror films in which audience participation does not negate the mood or atmosphere. It has been a while since sold-out theaters full of screaming participants has contributed to such a fun, enjoyable outing. The film is a worthy directorial debut, and a terrifying one at that which will at least somewhat reignite an aversion towards darkness in its victims.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.