Director – David F. Sandberg
Cast – Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho, Lotta Losten
Release Year – 2016
Reviewed by John of the Dead
It all started with a short film that left the world in goose bumps. In 2013 David F. Sandberg debuted Lights Out – a 2.5 minute film with an unbelievably simple yet effective scare tactic that left me thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that!”. When I learned that James Wan planned to product a full-length feature of the short film I wasn’t sold. I love him as a director, but after Annabelle, which is a full-length feature based on a short piece of cinema, I expected mediocrity unless he himself was directing. Coupled with a PG-13 rating I planned to take my sweet time getting to this one…but then my cohorts started telling me how much it scared them. This was the push I needed and after giving this a watch I can say that Lights Out is better than I expected it to be. It’s fun with effective scares and it doesn’t try to be something it’s not.
When her younger brother begins experiencing the same strange and terrifying phenomena that plagued her childhood, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer; Warm Bodies, The Grudge 2) is left with no choice but to return home and confront the mother she abandoned. As a child Rebecca watched as her mother (Maria Bello; Demonic, Secret Window, A History of Violence) feel into deep delusion about a woman who lurked in the shadows. Nobody believed her and now they won’t have a choice. This supernatural entity has returned, and its vengeance isn’t solely focused on her mother, but on the entire family.
If you haven’t already watched the short film then let me break it down for you. The horror stems around a creepy woman who appears when the lights are off and disappears when they are on. Momentary actuations of the light switch show that she is still there waiting when the light is turned off. This simple idea works in that you are left unsure about where the entity will be when the lights are off. Also, those of us fortunate to live in developed countries deal with light switches on a regular basis, and you won’t want to turn yours off when you get home from the viewing.
Clocking in at 80 minutes including the end credits, this is a brisk film. Little time is wasted in getting to the good stuff and I believe that was a necessity for this effort. Turning a 3 minute story into a full-length experience is a tall feat and I could not see how the subject matter could have provided for a longer effort. Simply put, had the film been any longer it would have suffered.
Sandberg’s story gives us a surprising amount of character play for a film that also needs to scare the viewer in a short amount of time. To start, we follow young Martin as he witnesses his mother seemingly talking to herself, facing a shadowy corner or closet. Then, he sees what she is talking to and he now finds himself in the crosshairs of the entity. This causes sleepless nights and an ever-present need for light, which eventually garners the attention of his sister Rebecca. They bond over suffering the same childhood nightmares caused by their mother, but what Rebecca doesn’t know is her brother has seen the demonic entity. To her, their mother is just delusional, but shortly after getting involved she learns that her mother has been right all of these years. Unable to go to the police and file charges against the supernatural, the family must work through their issues, band together, and fight back.
I was impressed with the level of horror seen here. From the get-go we are bombarded with Diana, the film’s antagonist, and she made regular appearances while the story was still developing. There are rarely more than a few moments where we aren’t given at least a flicker of darkness that reminds of us what lurks around the family, and the severity of the horror grows insidiously with the runtime. Sandberg gets crafty at times, leaving our protagonists in total darkness and forcing them to rely on self-powered light that, like their household lamps, can’t be relied upon. His execution of the horror is pretty good, at least for a PG 13 film. Practical effects were used where possible but we do see some CGI as well for the scenes that are just impossible to do practically. The look of Diana is OK. It was a bit cheesy for me and looked like she was intended to scare teenagers. You’ll get your fair share of jump scares but there were a few scenes that could give you some goosebumps. Sadly, there weren’t enough of those for me. The acting performances are OK, with nobody really stealing the show. This effort, being PG-13, will include the usual clichés when it comes to nearly every element, but Sandberg really excelled with the atmosphere. I loved the constant array of dark shadows that provided numerous hiding spots for Diana. Closets, corners, under the bed – even with the lights on you are still vulnerable. The main house was a solid location that provided for spooky scenes during day and night time and thankfully becomes the main location for the majority of the film. Even then, every location that Diana visited was used to full potential, so I see potential in Sandberg’s future.
Overall, Lights Out is a straight forward film that succeeds at what it sets out to do. If you go in not expecting anything other than a short, fast-paced supernatural flick with jump scares and some well-executed clichés then you may enjoy this one enough. It isn’t superb, but it really isn’t bad, so it gets a slightly generous rating from me.