Movie Review: “Lights Out” – A Dim View

Written by Jeremiah Greville August 08, 2016


Teresa Palmer as Rebecca in Lights Out (2016)

The best thing I can say about Lights Out is that it does more than enough to renew any pre-existing fear of the dark you might have. Unfortunately, it also does more than enough to undermine those very same fears with an inconsistent script and lack of solid horror movie rules. Lights Out isn’t a bad horror film–it features a terrific premise backed up by a sufficiently creepy movie monster–it’s just not as good as it could have been.

Lights Out is based on the 2013 short film by director David F. Sandberg, who returns here for his feature-film debut. It stars Teresa Palmer as Rebecca, a young woman with a troubled past who is forced to confront her mother’s (Maria Bello) quite literal demons with the help of her boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), and younger step-brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman). While the family drama at the centre of this film is the emotional core of the story, it’s merely window-dressing to the main appeal of Lights Out–its titular horror gimmick, a monster that only appears when the lights are off. Rebecca, Bret, and Martin are forced to team up before the creature, called Diana, tears their family apart.

“Someone keeps on coming over. Her name is Diana.”

One of the most important things to do when introducing a horror movie villain is to establish the rules of the universe. We, the audience, need to know just what the scary thing can and cannot do. This is important because every good horror monster experience includes moments of relative safety and danger, based on how the main characters deal with these rules. When the rules change, it has to serve the plot or up the ante in some significant way. It has to be worth it, and it has to pay off. One of the best horror movies in recent years for this was It Follows, which expertly unfolded the rules for its monster as the movie went on, subverting our expectations and, at times, re-defining them based on new info. To establish the unique premise in Lights Out, it opens with an effectively creepy scene at a mannequin factory. We see the monster, Diana, appear and disappear in the darkness while avoiding the light. We see how it moves, how the light limits it, and how it attacks people. The rules are set clearly, but then the movie does very little to raise the stakes or uphold these initial rules. Later in the movie we see Diana slink in slight shadow instead of total darkness, enter areas she shouldn’t be able to enter, and even interact with our characters when light should protect them. These moments don’t bolster the terror behind Diana–they undermine our confidence in the filmmakers’ abilities to establish a truly convincing and coherent movie universe. If you don’t believe in the rules, you won’t be scared when they’re broken.

Lights Out - Diana

Thankfully, Lights Out is at its best when it focuses on delivering disturbing visuals and presenting Diana in unique ways. Sandberg and screenwriter Eric Heisserer spend most of their time thinking up and presenting new ways to work with light and darkness, and most of it works well, especially it the first half. Scenes with a flickering neon tattoo parlour sign, or the silhouette of Diana in a doorway, are exceptionally creepy. Seeing her stand in shadow, then move from a completely different position a moment later, is effectively jarring and had the audience in my theatre jumping in their seats each time. When the film builds to its climax, however, the interplay between light and shadow is mostly abandoned–the characters spend their time fighting through an increasingly dark environment, and the focus instead turns to an assortment of ever-changing and inconsistently failing portable light sources. Oh no, the flashlight’s out! Wait–here’s a candle! Oh no, the candle’s going out! What’s next? It’s a change in tone that makes the second half of the film significantly less inventive than the first, and though the action keeps pace to the finale, it causes the movie itself to end on a bit of a limp note.

“I know. I see her too.”

This inconsistency is carried over in the characterization. The introductory scene for Rebecca and Bret sets up two things in the movie: 1) that Rebecca is damaged, flawed, and a bit unlikeable, and 2) that Bret is a totally loving and amazing boyfriend in every way. Similarly, their mother, Sophie, is tormented and depressed, while her son, Martin, is hopeful and mature beyond his years. If you noticed that I’ve described both male characters in positive terms, while doing the exact opposite for the two female characters–congrats! You’ve been paying attention. The characters don’t evolve beyond those four main traits, which leaves the movie in a strangely problematic, pseudo-sexist state. The men are pure and good, while the women are damaged. The performances also run the gamut from DiPersia’s warm delivery, to Palmer’s bland negativity, to Maria Bello’s wasted, frenetic psychosis. Perhaps most interesting is ten-year-old Gabriel Bateman’s mature performance, which often goes from unnervingly serene to legitimately fearful in the same scene. Much of this falls to first-time director Sandberg, who lacks experience working directly with actors. However, because this film features a more grounded approach to the issues of custody and care-giving then we’re used to seeing in this genre, the story often elevates the weakest elements of each scene. When the dialogue is clunky, the acting is good. When the acting is clunky, the script–or scares–save the day. When a character is unlikeable, we’re given reasons why.

Teresa Palmer as Rebecca and Alexander DiPersia as Bret

Fortunately, a character doesn’t need to be likeable to be capable, and all four characters react in realistic and clever ways to the horror around them. This doesn’t save the movie from predictable horror clichés, however, as much as provide a buffer to them when they do occur. Characters still split up for stupid reasons, and terrible things still happen to them because of it. At the end of the day, this is just a horror movie, and it lives up to the tropes of the genre just as often as it tries to upend them. For every unique moment of family drama there’s a cliché-ridden scene of needless exposition. For every moment of inspired horror and genuine fright, there’s a moment of baffling confusion and omission. Why was the origin of Diana given throughout when there were so many questions left at the end of the movie? Yes, you will have questions–but fortunately a sequel has already been greenlit, with Sandberg, Heisserer, and producer James Wan all set to return.

“Everyone’s afraid of the dark. That’s what she feeds on.”

Lights Out is not the great horror film we all hoped for, but it still features a lot of legitimate scares, and a uniquely frightening monster in Diana. If you don’t care about the story–and many won’t–you still might find plenty to enjoy in the shadows of this short, briskly-paced flick. If you don’t care about the monster, then you might find just enough family drama to interest you instead. Unfortunately, what you won’t find is a horror classic that melds real psychological drama with legitimate horror in equal measure. This movie thrives in the dark, but doesn’t do well under the light of scrutiny.

MY RATING: 5.5/10

Lights Out (2016) - Theatrical Poster

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

Browse Archived Articles by

No Comments

There are currently no comments on Movie Review: “Lights Out” – A Dim View. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

Leave a Comment