I didn’t know much going into seeing Lights Out; I don’t even remember seeing a trailer for it. But I must have because I had this odd sense I was interested in checking it out. It’s one of those odd little ducks that make an impression, but not really. Was there something about the plot that I found interesting? Was it the cast that sparked my curiosity? Was it simply because it was a horror film, which always tend to draw me in? I’m not sure because upon seeing it, I’m not sure any of those would have been the magic formula to do the trick. Lights Out isn’t a bad film, but it’s nothing special — basically just another simple horror film among many (like one of the previews, Don’t Breathe, which I thought to myself, “Now that should have been called Lights Out“).
Maria Bello stars as Sophie, a mother of two who does not do well when she’s depressed. That’s when Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), a really possessive spirit who lives among the shadows, comes out to play. Sophie and Diana are essentially best friends, but Diana is all but shackled in the depths of Hell until Sophie is at her worst. When she does get to come out, she’ll do everything in her power to keep it that way, including offing Sophie’s current husband (a horribly under-used Billy Burke) in the first five minutes of the film. I have to admit, I was disappointed to see Burke find his grave as early as he did, not just because he deserves so much more as an actor, but because the sequence (or the reasoning behind it) leave behind questions that lingered until the third act, when they finally found time to bring everything into perspective. I’m not sure I bought the reasons for Diana’s existence, or the lead-up to her return at the beginning of the film, but at least it follows a set of rules that can be understood easily enough.
The majority of the film, though, centers on Sophie’s daughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a blonde waif with commitment issues, whose life screams wanna-be rebel (explained mostly through a variety of posters and, gasp, a bong). Her boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) spends most of his screen time desperately trying to chip away at Rebecca’s wall of solitary — or being jealous over her “relationship” with her half-brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman). I put relationship in quotes because she really doesn’t have one. Ever since she put a moratorium on spending time with her family, it doesn’t seem she knows him all that well, if she ever did. Yet when her mom ignores the call to pick Martin up at school after getting in trouble for continuing to fall asleep in class, she’s there for him, no questions asked. Is it because she knows how her mother can be? Is it because she does hang out with Martin from time-to-time? With how they interact, it seems like both answers are part the reason, but if it is, it doesn’t match the characterization director David F. Sandberg already tried to setup. (Her eventual backstory does explain her odd protective aura, but is it too little, too late?)
The discrepant motivations also infect Diana. On one hand, as stated before, Diana is hellbent on making sure Sophie remains depressed, and at the same time, protecting her children to build a weird happy family of sorts. But when Rebecca takes Martin to her apartment, Diana goes after her. Is it to protect Martin? Is it to make Sophie happy (or keep her from getting angry at her)? It’s unclear because there are other moments where she seems to be just as afraid of Martin tearing her away from Sophie as she is everyone else. Once again, most of this is explained in the latter-half of the exposition-heavy second act, but it still feels somewhat convoluted, as if writer Eric Heisserer was following the “How to Make a Horror Movie” template step-for-step with no deviation what-so-ever.
Based on Sandberg’s short film of the same name, Lights Out moves quickly through a scant 81 minute run-time. No unnecessary fluff gets in the way of getting to the climax, which I do believe could have used a few more minutes — or a few more surprises. There’s one key realization that isn’t given the full support it needed (in fact, I would have much rather seen this idea utilized to its full extent, rather than it being introduced ten minutes prior to the film ending) and the final moment that ends everything makes sense, but doesn’t have as much impact as it should have based on the lack of build-up (and inconsistent character reactions) to that moment.
The most powerful aspect of the movie by far is in the way Sandberg utilizes and conveys Diana, who is deathly afraid of light. Whenever a light is turned on, she disappears, an effect that adds a tremendous amount of tension in a number of scenes. Much like Freddie in A Nightmare On Elm Street, the fear comes in knowing the source of the evil’s power is almost inevitable (sleep for Freddie, darkness for Diana). One scene in particular, as the sign of a tattoo parlor outside Rebecca’s apartment intermittently flashes on and off, was outright mesmerizing. To watch Diana come in and out with the light at the same time Rebecca tries to avoid her presence, is tense and scary and one of the only truly authentic frights in the whole movie. The rest either treads familiar ground, bypassing the exploration of some strong ideas in favor of a more rote horror formula. It’s because of this that Lights Out was interesting, but ultimately forgettable.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Bad Moms, Jason Bourne and Nerve. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.