Darkness inherently finds itself tied to horror. The vague shadows we see in the dark have fueled the human imagination for centuries. Lights Out looks to exploit that fear for all its worth visually. Director David F. Sandberg is extending his three minute short into a feature length context, giving the idea of a creature that only operates in the darkness a lengthier mystique, an origin story and multiple set pieces. Even at a run time of 80 minutes, it’s clear that Lights Out is really stretching its premise thin in order to fit a theatrical run time. Yet, the biggest drags really aren’t any of the monster set pieces. Instead, it’s something far more key: most of these characters.
Said characters are mainly centered around a rather broken family dynamic. It’s an engaging one on paper, with an older daughter (Teresa Palmer) trying to protect her half brother (Gabriel Bateman) from the destructive nature of her mentally unstable mother (Maria Bello, with the best performance for a plot devise in recent memory). Yet, that paper thin concept is really all Lights Out has for the narrative weight of these characters together. Teresa Palmer’s actions are clearly made with blunt emotion and cat-like curiosity that has her fall into the usually trappings of a typical white horror film protagonist. Even when she’s calling out Bello directly, it gives us even less investment in a character mainly used to exposit and do stupid things for plot reveals. It doesn’t help that her younger brother is about as believable a child character as a lesser Peanuts side character or that her mother is more used for plot contrivance than any convincing emotional engagement. The only character in Lights Out with any common sense is Alexander DiPersia as Palmer’s boyfriend, who has the sensible idea to confront some of these issues and actually get the help of some form of law enforcement when needed.
So clearly, Lights Out doesn’t put much investment in its clearly human characters. Instead, all stock is put directly towards the silhouetted creature that haunts them Diana. With a limited physicality and demonic eyes, Alicia Vela-Bailey does a phenomenal job of bringing the shadowy vapor to life as she haunts the doorways of our heroes. The moments that are most effective for a monster this mysterious are when she blatantly stands or crouches in direct sight of the main characters. There’s an animalistic raw edge to the character that doesn’t need to be spoken, one that’s driven by a fight to survive in a world out to destroy her for literally half of any given 24 hour period. Of course, this is best represented in the physicality rather than the goofy backstory they elaborate on to give a rather rushed emotional context to her powers that never really lives up. The backstory is one of many examples of Lights Out stretching out its premise to extremely thin points, sacrificing a more nuanced potential for the concept in order to over explain things to the audience. Even then, Lights Out rarely follows any consistent logic in favor of these visuals, which makes the story far less investing.
What’s far more important to Lights Out and Diana is how these set pieces based around light are executed and most of them are pretty well done. There are points where Lights Out drops into lesser jump scare territory, mainly when focusing around the previously mentioned duller family dynamics. Yet, the opening scene involving Billy Burke and the climactic fight are full of the exact right mixture of creative spins on the concept and haunted house sense of fun that makes for a rousing good horror time. A particular favorite example is when people attempt to shoot Diana, only to find she disappears when the muzzle flash appears. Plus, David F. Sanberg manages to bathe the frames in both total darkness and bright hues to create a sense of dread and atmosphere. Visual flourishes like this show the potential of Sanberg as a director if not a consistent storyteller. Hopefully he can bring some of that to his next project… Annabelle 2.
… Well, at least Lights Out producer James Wan‘s giving him work.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Broken Light Bulbs
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