Horror films are often so intent on being scary, that they forget to be good. “Lights Out” colors inside the lines of the jump-scare formula (prolonged silence + spike in volume = loss of popcorn), and yet, paradoxically, it keeps both feet on the ground with a believable family drama.
The family is made up of Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), Martin (Gabriel Bateman) and Sophie (Maria Bello). Rebecca lives on her own, when she’s not courting the front-man of a band with two nouns for a name—that last part is pure conjecture. As she apparently lives next to a Kenny Rogers Roasters, her apartment is flooded with a flashing neon light during the sleeping hours, allowing for some spooky fun later on. Her kid brother and mother, Martin and Sophie, live on the other side of town. Sophie is a certified schizo and terrifies Martin by carrying on in conversation when there is definitely no one around to reciprocate. But there is: Diana, the clingy ghost. I would go into Diana’s motivations, but I don’t have a flashlight to hold below my chin.
In its set-up, the issue of mental illness arises. Rebecca wants to take Martin away from their mother, due to her refusal to take medication, not because of the nightmarish company she keeps. And at one point, Martin asks his big sister if mental illness runs in the family. With these breadcrumbs, the movie makes an effective play at melding the real-world fear of mental illness with the supernatural fear of ghosts. In a bad move, however, the film opens with a genetic outsider getting killed by Diana, which robs the rest of the film of any questions concerning the sanity of its main characters—an angle that Jeff Nichols nailed with “Take Shelter.”
A ghost story is only as good as its ghost, and Diana is no keeper. Design-wise, she’s your run-of-the-mill, greasy haired, leprosy inflicted old lady with her eyes rolled back. Behavior-wise, on the other hand, Diana has a unique irritation to light and may only appear in the dark. This might seem like a cheap gimmick, I give you that, and we’re already trained to fear the dark, sure, but director, David F. Sandburg, squeezes every bit of imagination out of this simple trick. In a succession of events involving Rebecca’s boyfriend and an angry Diana, the boyfriend employs everything from a cell phone to the headlights of a car in order to make his escape. It’s thrilling, scary and, most importantly, fun.
After seeing “Jaws” as a kid, I became terrified of the bathtub. I figured that it was possible a baby shark could be sucked up from the ocean into the pipes, end up in my tub, grow up a little and then swallow me whole upon my next visit. As gripping as it can sometimes be, I can’t imagine “Lights Out” eliciting the same amount of absurd logic concerning the dark.
3 out of 5 stars