Lights Out delivers on its premise — it’s well acted and it’s got its fair share of good scares. If that’s all you’re looking for out of the film, then its unlikely you’ll be disappointed.
Just don’t look any closer at the production or think too much about what you’re actually getting. The writing is thin, and the characters are more or less one-note. An astute viewer should have the film’s ‘mystery’ figured out even before the characters literally talk it out on-screen.
Those limitations point to a certain lack of ambition and limited scope for the film. In this case, though, it’s forgivable, because the areas where the production does show ambition and inventiveness work.
What’s it about?
In Lights Out Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies) plays Rebecca, a twentysomething who’s been on her own since her teens after leaving her home and her depression-prone mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) behind. Audiences soon learn that Rebecca and Sophie were themselves abandoned by Rebecca’s father when she was young, and his leaving took a terrible toll on them both.
As an adult, Rebecca avoids emotional entanglements, and her relationship with her mother is nonexistent. However, she’s drawn back home when her 10-year-old half-brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman, TV’s “American Gothic“), appears to begin experiencing what Rebecca herself experienced living with Sophie years before.
In particular, Martin is seeing something in the house when the lights go out. What’s worse, it appears that Sophie, his mother, cannot or will not protect him. She seems to know what it is skulking and clawing in the dark. In fact, she talks to it like a friend.
Once Rebecca has her own encounter with what’s terrorizing Martin, she resolves to get him away from Sophie for good. But once they uncover what the entity is and its connection to their mother, they realize that they may never be safe, no matter where or how far they run.
Swedish director David F. Sandberg makes his feature film directorial debut with Lights Out, a project that sprang from his short film of the same. That horror short, featuring Sandberg’s wife Lotta Losten, introduced the “blink-in, blink-out” aesthetic to the being that haunts the proceedings in the full length movie. (Losten also appears in the feature-length version in a small role.)
It’s easy to see why the concept would attract the attention of producer James Wan, who himself directed Saw and The Conjuring films. The “rules” the film establishes for how the evil operates in Lights Out provide for lots of opportunities for creativity with different light sources, turning on and off at opportune or inopportune times.
To his credit, Sandberg makes the most of those opportunities. Lights go out, or in some cases turn back on, at just the right moments to build or pay off anticipation. His efforts should lead to lots of gasps and involuntary starts and maybe one or two cases of insomnia even among seasoned horror fans.
Character complexity lacking
Where Lights Out falls short is during the moments between the scares. The script by Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5) doesn’t give the leads a whole lot to work with. The characters are more or less one-note, and while the actors make them likeable, there’s not enough there to make them truly resonate.
Are they the sort of stock characters from horror films of a bygone age that we’ve seen lampooned in modern horror films that skirt the edge of parody, like Scream and The Cabin in the Woods? Not remotely, but they and the family drama between them meant to give Lights Out depth and heart ends up just feeling like obligatory melodrama.
Thankfully, at only 81 minutes, there’s not a whole lot of it to slog through in order to get to what audiences are really paying for.
For fans of recent supernatural horror films such as The Conjuring films and Annabelle,, Lights Out should be a fun, scream-filled night out at the movies. It’s best enjoyed in a dark theater, surrounded by a receptive audience who will likely be jumping and crying out right along with you. Admittedly, though, seeing the movie alone at home with all the lights turns off might do the same trick.
However, if you’re not a horror film fan and/or you’re prone to insomnia, best give this one a wide berth. Script limitations aside, it’s done just well enough to maybe leave you hesitant about turning the lights out at bedtime.
Starring Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Billy Burke, Alexander DiPersia, and Maria Bello. Directed by David F. Sandberg.
Running Time: 81 minutes
Rated PG-13 for terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material and brief drug content.