Lights Out (2016)
81 min., rated PG-13.
The fear walking into “Lights Out” was that it might feel like a short film with 78 more minutes of padding. Life for this horror film did, in fact, begin as a nightmare-fueled short of the same name in 2013. Director David F. Sandberg, who marks his feature debut here, had a simple but effectively creepy idea with a socko freakout: before a woman goes to sleep, she shuts off her hallway lightswitch but notices a female figure standing at the end of her hall; when she turns the light back on, the figure is gone. This pattern happens for a few more flips of the switch, and on the last time in the dark, the figure appears too close for comfort. With a modest budget and more than enough visual sense, Sandberg runs with his original gimmick with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer (he of the 2010 “A Nightmare on Elm Street" remake and the 2011 prequel of “The Thing”) that establishes rules and sticks to them fairly well. As studio horror offerings go, “Lights Out” is as concerned with telling a story about mental illness tearing a family apart as much as it is with getting scares involving a supernatural threat.
Headstrong twentysomething Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) gets a call from her 10-year-old half-brother Martin’s (Gabriel Bateman) school. He has been falling asleep in class due to his homelife with their severely depressed mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), who keeps talking to someone named “Diana” in the darkness. Having left the family nest long ago after her father mysteriously left, Rebecca has been down this road before with her estranged mother, so she decides to let Martin stay with her so he can get some sleep. When Rebecca hears the name “Diana” and encounters the entity in the dark, it brings her back to the time she herself first encountered Mom’s “friend” as a child. As long as Rebecca and Martin stay in the light long enough, they are safe, but the darkness will catch up to them.
“Lights Out” might share commonalities with “Darkness Falls,” “Mama” and “The Babadook,” but it has its own story to tell. Director David F. Sandberg gets great mileage out of his lights-off, lights-on trick, starting with the freaky pre-credits sequence that replicates the 3-minute short. It’s closing time at a textile factory managed by Sophie’s husband and Martin’s father, Paul (Billy Burke), who gets a taste of Diana’s wrath. But first, one of his staff members (Lotta Losten, the director’s wife from the short) gets spooked when flipping a lightswitch on and off. Luckily, Sandberg concocts more than a one-note round of jump scares, which are certainly there but executed with enough variance. He and screenwriter Eric Heisserer also treat their characters with respect, which is sometimes an anomaly in horror films. A possible pitfall of expanding a short idea is over-mythologizing, and director Sandberg and screenwriter Heisserer mostly dodge it by getting their exposition dump out of the way real quick. The logic that psychiatric records and cassette recordings would be left out in the open as evidence for Rebecca to find and peruse through is a bit of a stretch, so a slightly more forgiving suspension of disbelief is certainly necessary. A natural conclusion stares the filmmakers directly in the face and they end up choosing the right one. The resolution will certainly divide audiences, but no matter if it’s deemed too off-putting, it is courageous.
Rebecca is written and acted by Teresa Palmer with an inner strength. It wouldn’t have hurt to learn more about Rebecca, like what she does for a living. Is she a tattoo artist, or does she just live above a tattoo shop where the neon “Tattoo” sign outside her window blinks all night? Palmer still finds plenty of truthful notes, and the character takes risks staying in the light but never behaves like a typical horror-movie numbskull. Likewise, Gabriel Bateman (Cinemax’s “Outcast”) is a solid child actor, looking terrified on cue and acting as a real kid would. Maria Bello is quietly unstable and heartbreaking as Sophie, drawing more humanity than melodrama out of a maternal character who struggles to be maternal with her own children and has no idea how to free herself from the grip of her so-called friend. The role of Rebecca’s refreshingly patient and supportive boyfriend Bret also never feels like a stock sitting duck from the way it’s fulfilled by the engaging Alexander DiPersia. He’s introduced early on in trying to stay the night with the emotionally unavailable Rebecca and even leaves at least one sock in her dresser drawer, and then once Bret still remains in one piece, he even has a crowd-cheering moment where he brings the light on Diana. As for Diana herself, the spindly figure is well performed by stuntwoman Alicia Vela-Bailey, who’s as memorable as Samara in “The Ring,” the woman in black in “The Woman in Black,” and Mama in “Mama.” Diana is creepiest when kept as a silhouette; when we get a shot or two of her up close and personal at the very end, it’s plenty.
With a svelte 81-minute running time that never makes the story feel padded or rushed, “Lights Out” gets in, has one in the palm of its hand and then gets out. The kind of horror film where the viewer can scream and then laugh in relief, it's also one with enough nerve to be about something more thematically bold than most studio-bred horror fare. Director Sandberg makes sure the film has a stylish, clean look with expert cinematography and lighting, utilizing the latter especially when black lights, wind-up flashlights and cell phone lights smartly figure into the nerve-rattling climax all set in Sophie’s home. When there are downright fun, veritably scary PG-13 horror surprises like “Lights Out,” the R-rating and resorting to brutal violence actually are not missed. This is a crafty summer screamer.