Lights Out (2016)

15 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you’re in the light, you’re safe. But when the lights are off, you’re doomed. It’s a gimmick, of course; one that can generate some good scares in a horror film. But if that were all “Lights Out” had to offer, the gimmick would probably wear out quickly. Thankfully, while this is a very effective scare-fest with neat ways of showing both how easy and how hard it is to escape the mysterious entity that lurks in the dark, there’s more to the film than just scares. Surprisingly, it has a family-drama story to tell also, and Swedish director David F. Sandberg (making his feature debut based on his popular short film of the same name) does a good balancing out the family dilemmas and the supernatural terror.

“Lights Out” lets us know right away what kind of terror we’re up against, in a chilling prologue in which the husband (Billy Burke) of a mentally unstable woman (Maria Bello) falls victim to some form of creature or other, which kills him in the dark, as it can’t come into the light. His wife, now a widow, apparently knows this thing and often talks to it in the shadows, which seriously unnerves her pre-teenage stepson, Martin (Gabriel Bateman). (By the way, that’s a great twist to the “imaginary friend” horror-movie trope: instead of the child befriending a supernatural threat, it’s the child’s parent this time.) Too scared to sleep at night, Martin approaches his grown-up stepsister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), for help. Rebecca doesn’t feel fit to handle responsibility as a surrogate parent and she doesn’t know what to do about her mother’s erratic behavior which she’s been trying to avoid since she left home, but she knows she has to try and do something. Then she and her boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), encounter the shadow figure and find themselves not only fighting for the wellbeing of Rebecca’s mother and Martin but also their own lives.

2016 has been a pretty good year for smart horror so far. From Netflix treats such as “Stranger Things” and “Hush” to sleeper hits such as “10 Cloverfield Lane” and “The Witch,” not to mention the exceptional sequel “The Conjuring 2,” we’ve had smart filmmakers tell us gripping, well-written stories with well-established characters to go along with well-executed terror. “Lights Out” is no exception. We gradually get an interesting explanation about the monster as the film continues and we get to know the characters through it all as well. The more we learn about them, the more empathetic they become. Even the mother isn’t as antagonistic as she seems; she’s merely a pawn being used in a deadly game. We also see an interesting growth from the character of Rebecca as she learns the importance of family she wishes she learned before. I even cared for Bret, who could’ve been just the throwaway boyfriend character in another movie. But I liked this guy; he’s supportive and reliable, but also surprisingly bright and resourceful. That’s another thing I liked about this movie—these characters are smart. They don’t make the dumb mistakes most horror-movie characters make. I especially like the moments in which they need to get light quickly before they’re caught by the monster. The film is also well-made, with ominous atmosphere adding on to the creepy tone.

And on top of that, the film is short—it barely makes it to the 80-minute mark. That’s because the makers of this film knew to keep the film simple and tight.

Problems I have with “Lights Out” are minor. Teresa Palmer’s performance started out a little stiff to me, but I think maybe that was intended to show how lost she is as a character, having no idea what’s going on with her family and being pressured by her boyfriend to commit to a relationship. (She does get better as the film goes on, even if that wasn’t the case.) As far as horror aspects go, I sort of question how this thing is able to move around when the lights are off, since it can appear just about anywhere. But I think the biggest problem I have with the film is the reveal of the monster. Not that it was bad, but it looked like the typical decrepit, decaying old-age makeup job we’ve seen in several recent horror films already. I would’ve preferred not to see the monster up close; my imagination through the buildup was enough to give me the chills.

Fear of the dark is a very common phobia indeed, and “Lights Out” plays with it in a very neat way. Those expecting a scary movie will definitely get it, but they’ll probably get something more from it too. This is a creepshow with actual story and characters, and it really works.

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