Movie review: In the chilling ‘Lights Out,’ what you can’t quite see is what you get
There are two ways to look at “Lights Out.” It’s a typical things-that-go-bump-in-the-dark horror thriller or it’s a dramatic study of a family in turmoil that also happens to be so freakin’ scary it’ll make you scream out loud and briefly, involuntarily, jump in your seat.
Based on a 3-minute, dialogue-free, plotless film that was an entry in the Who’s There short horror film contest in Sweden, the film has gone feature-length (a compact 82 minutes) and has been given an intriguing storyline to go along with a generous supply of quiet creepiness and blatant shock effects.
First-time feature director David F. Sandberg, the Swedish fellow who made the short that only starred his wife, Lotta Losten, has had the good fortune here to work under the sharp producer’s watch of James Wan (director of the “Conjuring” and “Insidious” franchises). And Sandberg has done a fine job of meshing ideas from his original film with the script by Eric Heisserer (the reboots of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Thing”).
A lot of things happen in the dark in “Lights Out,” but they aren’t just bumps. If the people in the film aren’t careful, i.e., if they don’t keeps the lights on, they’re not gonna make it through the nights.
There’s a nice young couple: Rebecca and Bret (Teresa Palmer and Alexander DiPersia), who get along quite well even though she, without giving an excuse, never lets him stay the night at her apartment. There’s younger Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who lives in a mid-size, slightly eerie house with his mom Sophie (Maria Bello), the film’s resident troubled person who has decided to go off her meds. And there’s Diana, someone (or something) who might be real, might be a figment of clinically depressed Sophie’s addled imagination, but is right up there onscreen, for all to see.
Actually she’s very hard to see, as she’s only glimpsed as a dark figure in the dark shadows. She lives in the same house as Sophie and increasingly frightened Martin, and she and Sophie have behind-the-door conversations. But supposedly due to some medical complications, Diana can’t be in any direct light. So Sophie keeps the house dark, with the shades down in the daytime and bulbs removed from most of the lamps.
The film is most effective when that black-shrouded figure is heard, scritch-scratching along the floor, but is only sort of seen, creeping around, often jumping much too close to people, having long, spidery fingers, and bending her body into almost impossible shapes. One reason the character/creature is so cool is that she isn’t a CGI effect; she’s played by a real person, the dancer-contortionist-stuntwoman Alicia Vela-Bailey. One other thing: Diana is a remorseless killer.
As far as that family in turmoil business, Rebecca and Martin are sister and brother. She left home long ago to get away from a bad situation with their mom. He’s still young enough to be stuck there, and Rebecca tries to be as protective as possible from a distance. But now she’s drawn back, with loyal Bret tagging along, put into the position of trying to be protective of both Rebecca and Martin.
This is a small-budget film, with a streamlined script and some terrific performances. Maria Bello has admitted that she grew some of her character out of her own experiences battling bipolar disorder, and she is extremely convincing in the part.
When it’s all over, there will be people thinking that the plot didn’t make a lick of sense, and they’d probably be right. But that doesn’t take anything away from the deliciously feverish time you’ll have watching it. And for some it won’t be about having to leave the lights on at night in order to get to sleep, it’ll be about not being able to get to sleep.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Eric Heisserer; directed by David F. Sandberg
With Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello, and Alexander DiPersia