Release: Friday, July 22, 2016
Written by: Eric Heisserer
Directed by: David F. Sandberg
In Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg’s feature debut, an expanded realization of a short film he made in 2013, something sinister lurks in the absence of light and enjoys tormenting anyone unfortunate enough to be in the same room with it. That is, of course, unless those people have a flashlight or bright cell phone screen handy and they can wield it like Father Merrin does the cross before Pazuzu himself: “Go away! Go away, you!”
Lights Out is a family drama dressed up as a fright fest. It’s well-acted and on-the-rise Aussie actress Teresa Palmer makes much of it worth your while. She’s certainly easier on the eyes than she is on your heart, a kind of bratty youth who blames her attitude on daddy walking out on the family so long ago. Her mother (Maria Bello) has lost her mind and become reclusive. After many years she’s still haunted by the disappearance of childhood friend Diana.
Her daughter Rebecca (Palmer) can’t seem to get a grip on her own life. She lives alone in her apartment and doesn’t want to call the guy she’s been seeing for eight months her boyfriend. Bret (Alexander DiPersia)’s not going anywhere though, not even after he’s finally met Rebecca’s crazy mom. Heck, especially after. Rebecca has a younger half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who still lives at home but soon it becomes clear that that situation can no longer continue, what with mom talking to herself late at night and haunting the poor boy with stories of her past. Stuff about Diana. Other gibberish.
One thing that Lights Out has going for it is a strong sense of family. That manifests despite the brokenness of this particular household. Whether it’s Rebecca’s instinctive protectiveness of Martin — she attempts to take him in and care for him at her own apartment before a child care specialist shows up and impresses upon her the actual, transformative reality of becoming a caretaker — or Bret’s inexplicable devotion to his not-girlfriend; even Sophie, the sick mother, has a deep love for her son and daughter. The film is wisely, and arguably, more intimately concerned with human relationships than it is with things going bump in the night. Bello in particular manages to really dial in on the emotional heft of her character experiencing some low moments.
Palmer is less interesting, as is her boy-toy. Both actors are likable enough but the latter barely leaves his fingerprints on the story. Rebecca never really seems to change, as circumstances force her to get back in touch with her mother despite years of tension and weirdness. As Martin, the young Bateman has presence but more importantly he spares us from yet another shrieking, generally irritating cinematic creation who serves no greater purpose than to put everyone in needless danger.
Less interesting than any of these is the antagonist, some haunt that has roots in the history of this once-upon-a-time happy family. Frustratingly Lights Out is another case in which evil appears and acts only when the script finds it convenient. This would also explain the apparition’s obnoxious inconsistencies, like being able to shut down power to an entire building but not having the fortitude to withstand an attack from the light of a cell phone. Something interesting does come out of the invention — it’s creepy watching the thing move in between flips of a light switch — but if you’re in it for the wickedness awaiting all those who have trespassed, you’re in the wrong movie.
If you’ve come for the jump scares, you’ve come to the right place. That’s all Lights Out does, even if it does it well. I hope it doesn’t become Sandberg’s calling card. Despite the quality of a handful of those moments, I gotta say a person’s healthy fear of darkness is actually more intense than the fear of what Sandberg’s film has laying around in it. I can’t help but feel like we would understand the function of so many repeated jump scares if the threat were more real. Without a compelling villain behind everything the technique just feels lazy and uninspired. Repetitive.
When it comes right down to it, decent ghost story; not so good movie.
* I have never walked out on a movie because of other people in the theater being too loud. Lights Out broke that streak. I went to check it out on Friday but there were two very intoxicated guys in there who genuinely just didn’t realize how loud they were being. Unfortunately this was after they and two other groups came in after the movie had begun (like, tape rolling not the credits and stuff). I got a pass for another time, came back Saturday. I was alone in the theater (11:15p) until a rambunctious little group of teens came in and they proceeded to talk through the entire movie and were probably even louder than the guys the night before. I almost left again. So it is quite possible that this review doesn’t accurately reflect how I might have felt about it had I been able to fully concentrate on the film. So, I thank those individuals for that. Thanks for the distractions.
Recommendation: The strong sense of family is what makes Lights Out worth sitting through at all. The steeped-in-reality tone and settings feel very James Wan but there’s little evidence of his influence elsewhere. I suppose the script isn’t the worst you could find either. But come the end of it you’re left wanting a lot more. That’s a shame when everyone seems so committed.
Running Time: 81 mins.
Quoted: “Hey Martin, what’s up? Did we wake you?”
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