A trip to IMDb or YouTube will quickly prove that ‘Lights Out’ was based on a short film, but you don’t really need to look that up to figure it out. Watching the movie should make that clear. It’s hinged on a simple horror premise that works and then gets repeated until the credits roll.
The story is about a creepy ghost that only exists in the dark, banished from view whenever light shines near. (The idea is so simple, primal and effective that it’s amazing no one thought of it before now.) It’s easy to see the scare potential in that, and first-time feature director David F. Sandberg has no problem coming up with variations on his theme. However, even at a trim 81 minutes, ‘Lights Out’ feels stretched out. The concept has just barely enough potential for a feature. Fortunately, Sandberg gets enough right, so it’s an immensely watchable little creepfest, if not a particularly inspired one.
Things kick off with an unsettling prologue to establish the threat of the light-phobic phantom, then we’re into twisted family drama territory. Teresa Palmer stars as Rebecca, a brooding twenty-something who’s super into metal and horror and darkness and not letting her impossibly perfect boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) get too close. You see, she had a troubled childhood. Her father left the family and her mother (Maria Bello) would babble endlessly about a disturbed imaginary friend named Diana. Rebecca eventually left home, but she has a little half brother (Gabriel Bateman) who’s still living with that crazy mommy. Worse still, his father was the unfortunate soul knocked off in the opening scene, and ever since that darkness-craving ghost has been terrorizing the kiddie. Rebecca tries to step in and take the boy away from their troubled mother, but of course that ghost tags along. This thing is going to get tricky…
Director Sandberg deserves credit for keeping his scares simple and effective. He never gets too flashy and never indulges in unnecessary visual effects purely for the sake of scale. He keeps the scares primal, rooted in shadows and things that go bump in the night. It’s quite effective stuff, for the most part. As the story marches forward, the movie attempts to push the material into something vaguely metaphoric. There’s a suggestion that the specter is a manifestation of the mother’s mental illness and the character drama plays out like a tale of children raised by a sick mother whom they love, but can’t fully trust without medication. It’s actually fairly sensitively handled and works. The performances are surprisingly strong, particularly from Palmer and Bello, who have made careers out of being the best parts of mediocre movies. The drama is grounded and the characters believable, which only enhances the supernatural freak-outs when they arrive.
Unfortunately, because this is a Hollywood genre picture, Sandberg couldn’t keep things as vague as the story deserves. Overblown back story and psychobabble make things a little too literal and undercut the human drama. Likewise, while the filmmaker has fun coming up with various clever light sources to play his shadowy scares from (wind-up flashlights, etc.), this ghost is a one trick pony and gets repetitive. The grand finale lurches the whole project a little too far into the absurd for its own good and almost jumps-the-shark through repetitive jump scares and over-explaining supernatural mysteries.
Thankfully, the tight little genre romp wraps up quickly before fully crossing the line. ‘Lights Out’ was probably a little too simplistic a concept for a feature length movie, but at least it’s executed with enough intelligence and style to work. At an hour with more mystery, this might even have been a great horror romp. At 82 minutes with extra narrative handholding, it’s still an effective little genre effort. It’s a good horror flick that should spook out the target audience and serve as a calling card for a horror director with promise.
Don’t go if you’re afraid of the dark… or actually do, because this one was made for you. Just buy a nightlight on the way home or something.