Lights Out is a sleek 80-minute horror film directed by David Sandberg. This is his feature film debut, but that certainly isn’t evident when audiences see this movie. The director understands that playing on our deepest personal fears can result in the biggest scares. This film masterfully manipulates the audience through the darkest depths of the subconscious, scares the living hell out of you, and will have fans smiling on the way out because they survived.
The story centers around the murder of Martin’s (Gabriel Bateman) father and how he’s haunted by a shadowy figure who appears to have natty knitted hair, long finger nails, and desire to harm people. This specter, named Diana, has an unexpected connection to his family. It seems she’s besties with his mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), who just happens to have spent some time in a psychiatric ward when she was a child. Martin’s sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is no longer in the house, but she’s also had her run-ins with Diana. When she gets wind that her brother is in trouble, she comes to her brother’s aid and winds up in a showdown.
While some might look at this and think there is not much to the narrative of this film. Let me ask this question, who says that scary films have to include an elaborate narrative? It’s safe to say that the object of the film is to scare the holy hell out of the audience and hopefully do it in a way that doesn’t bore. This film doesn’t rely on any cinematic parlor tricks, no CGI Monster, no excessive amounts of blood, just good old fashioned horror.
Watching Lights Out reminded me of the feeling we all got when we saw campers milling about at night in Friday The 13th. We would sit, transfixed to the screen as a dimwitted camper would slowly creep into that poorly lit cabin unaware of their impending doom. There was an element of predictability in both films, but that served as a hook to engage us.
The highlight of this movie is the direction of David Sandberg. There are eight locations where the film primarily takes place. That doesn’t seem like much but in this case, it’s where the film flourishes. Sandberg utilizes every nook and cranny in every location to maximize the amount of terror he exacts on his unsuspecting audience. For example, there is a scene where Sophie is trying to introduce Martin to Diana. Martin is already aware of her, and just the name sends him into a state of hysteria. While this scene is unfolding the audience can hear Sophie trying to sell how great Diana is, and Sandberg keeps the shot directly on Martin’s face to get his reaction, distracting the audience from his surroundings. Then just as Sophie say “You just have to give her a chance,” the shot opens up, and we see that Diana has been perched on the back of the sofa this whole time. Not only is it a nice jump scare, it certainly shows that Sandberg is willing to use every inch of the set.
Bello, Palmer, and Bateman are all integral elements to this film’s success. Maria Bello’s depiction of Sophie, the mentally ill mother who wants her family to friends with Diana, isn’t over the top. Teresa Palmer’s Rebecca, the sister who just want to protect her brother from harm, is explosive. However, the most significant performance has to be Gabriel Bateman’s Martin. If Bateman can’t convince us that he’s haunted to his core by Diana, then the movie doesn’t quite work. Bateman not only succeeds in conveying this terror to moviegoers, but his performance is also the best of this film.
Overall, Lights Out is one of the most entertaining trips that anyone will have at the movies this summer. Just don’t be shocked if after seeing this film, someone in your family doesn’t want to leave a few lights on at night.