Sunday, October 8, 2017

31 Days of Horror: Lights Out

Directed by David F. Sandberg.
2016. PG-13, 81 minutes.
Teresa Palmer
Maria Bello
Gabriel Bateman
Alexander DiPersia
Alicia Vela-Bailey
Billy Burke
Andi Osho
Lotta Losten

Ideally, a film is the result of the execution of the director's vision. When taking in the breadth of an auteur's filmography we pick up on their traits, get a feel for their style. The works of even the most skilled and varied filmmakers share techniques and subtextual themes. This can even bleed into the movies they don't direct, but produce. This could be a good thing. For instance, Tobe Hooper, a famed director in his own right, directed the original Poltergeist. However, it stands apart from the rest of his canon. In fact, it's nothing like most of his films at all. Instead, it looks, feels, and acts like something producer Steven Spielberg crafted all by his lonesome. This has led to widespread speculation and debate about how much Spielberg let Hooper direct and how much he did himself. His influence is undeniable. The only question that remains is how much he actually sat in the special chair. While Poltergeist flourishes despite those circumstances, Lights Out seems to suffer from them.

The director, in this case, is David F. Sandberg, making his first full-length feature. It starts with Paul (Burke) getting murdered by a creepy figure who only seems to move about in the dark. We fast-forward a number of years to see that his son, Martin (Bateman), is having lots of sleepless nights because he's apparently living with the same figure, calling herself Diana (Vela-Bailey), who regularly converses with his mother, Sophie (Bello). Things get so bad for the little guy, social services gets called in. In rides his adult big sister, Rebecca (Palmer), to the rescue. Along with her ridiculously smitten boyfriend Bret (DiPersia), she tries to figure out what's going on before everyone gets killed.

One of the movie's producers is none other than James Wan, and therein lies the rub. If the name sounds familiar, it should. He burst onto the scene way back in 2004 with his own feature debut, Saw. In this decade, he's been churning out a steady string of haunted house movies across two franchises, Insidious and The Conjuring. He directed the first film in each and a number of the others. Lights Out feels like a hodge-podge of his best and worst traits, rendering it a middling experience, at best.

On the plus side, the movie succeeds at quickly creating and sustaining a dreadful tone. The opening scene is brilliant. It immediately puts us in fright mode. True to its title, it uses light and dark to great effect. The visuals of Diana seeming to teleport her way closer to the people seeing her is perfectly dreadful. We're instantly reminded of all those moments we thought we saw or heard something move in a dark room in which we think we're alone. This is something Wan was able to do best in The Conjuring.As with that film, this dread carries the movie. It's no wonder this was prominently featured in the trailer.

Another positive is the performance of Maria Bello as Sophie and the writing of her relationship with Diana. Sophie is presented as crazy, but unlike most horror movies, her issues are subtly communicated by Bello. Her issues are clearly worn on her sleeves, but aren't portrayed through any sort of hysteria on her part. We understand she's rationalized Diana's existence enough for Diana to seem a normal, if petulant, member of the family. Diana may be the apparition, but Sophie's handling of the situation makes her the creepier of the two. Still, making Diana someone who desperately wants to be accepted by the living is a wonderful way to turn the trope of pissed off ghost on its head. Teresa Palmer takes on the scream queen role as Bello's opposition. She's serviceable in the part, but it's Bello who makes the film.

The major negative is something that's bothered me about much of Wan's work. It's also the reason I suspect he had a good deal of influence on the execution of this film. Even though Diana is creepy the moment we lay eyes on her, the fear she induces dissipates as the film wears on. The reason is she so often fails at her stated, self-given mission we're not totally convinced anyone is in real danger. In our heads, we know that they are because of what happens at the beginning. We just don't feel it in our gut like we should  It's a problem that plagues the Insidious series. This time around, the culprit isn't necessarily Diana, herself, but her limitations. She's too easily foiled by a working flashlight to fully scare us.

Other issues that arise are more singular to this film rather than it's similarities to film's directed by its producer. The biggest is the way Rebecca's relationship with Bret is depicted. It's all far too cute for a movie otherwise bent on playing on our natural fear of the dark. She tells him to get lost, or at least to slow his roll. He replies by begging, giving her sad puppy eyes, and whipping around his enviable mane. This exchange repeats itself ad nauseum over the course of the film until it plays out in inevitable fashion. Another issue is the dialogue of young Martin. I get the kid has gone through, and is going through, some really tough times from a psychological standpoint. However, a lot what he says often sound like they should come from a child at least four or five years older, if not ten. When he starts speaking in this manner, it pulls us out of the film because he's clearly the smartest person in the film, but only sometimes.

Sometimes is an appropriate word for Lights Out. Sometimes it works really, really well. Sometimes not. Unfortunately, most of the times when it works are front-loaded to the early parts of the film. As it wears on, we've little to hold onto since there is no mystery with our ghost's intentions or identity. Late in the proceedings people not previously involved are trotted onto the screen as cannon fodder in an attempt to reinforce the notion Diana means business. However, we know that they've been given life only to give us quick deaths. We don't care about them as people, nor do they excite our senses, since they're killed in not-so-memorable fashion. It's not a bad watch, just not one that's going to sink in and fully deliver the frights it desperately wants to.

If you ain't afraid of no ghosts, check out these other posts:
Ghostbusters (2016)


  1. This has been on HBO/Cinemax as I've been unsure if I want to see it. I guess I'll just skip it.

    1. I wouldn't say you're missing anything, but it's not too bad of a watch.