When the first trailer for David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out surfaced, I feared that we’d have another Annabelle situation on our hands. Translation: James Wan would produce a film where the director simply tries to mimic Wan’s signature style. It’s easy to get lost in current trends that seem to be working, especially for a blockbuster rookie. So, how does Wan’s protégé fare? Well, Sandberg proves early and often that he’s no WANnabe horror stud – he’s here to kick some genre ass.
Lights Out lunges from the darkest, deepest reaches of enjoyable horror masochism (why do we love scaring ourselves to death?), and dismantles a whole host of tired clichés with ease. “First-time filmmakers make silly genre mistakes!” or “Shorts always make for weak feature adaptations!” or “Mainstream horror is a dying artform!” – nope, not here, and definitely not. Sandberg deviously delivers one helluva cracked-out haunted attraction, vicious enough to rattle casual watchers and die-hard thrill seekers alike. If you thought you were afraid of the dark before, you might want to stock up on nightlight batteries now…
Based off Sandberg’s viral short of the same name, Lights Out unleashes a malevolent force who can only travel through pitch-black darkness. If the lights are on, you’re safe. When they go out, her gangling, demonic form (like a Witch from Left 4 Dead) can be seen as a perched silhouette. These are the visions that keep young Martin (Gabriel Bateman) awake at night, while his depressed mother (Maria Bello) grieves over the loss of her second husband (Billy Burke).
After Martin falls asleep in homeroom for the third time in a single week, big sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) takes him back to her apartment so he can get some rest. That’s when Martin’s stalker appears in Rebecca’s room, and she’s brought back to her very own childhood Hell. It’s obvious that whatever is haunting this family doesn’t plan on stopping, so both children (along with Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret, played by Alexander DiPersia) return home in hopes of ending their recurring torment. Except mother already knows about her family’s unwanted friend – and it has a name.
It’s true that Sandberg manipulates the oldest situational horror gimmick imaginable – unknown monsters hiding in the shadows – but nothing about the scares in Lights Out are conventional. The way Diana appears and vanishes with flickering luminosity contrasts how Sandberg’s characters go from “safe” to “endangered” with the flip of a switch. This leads into an atmosphere drenched in merciless, chilling dread, so nerve-racking you’ll leave indentations from squeezing theater armrests too tightly. Diana’s rage is f#*king scary with a capital F#*KING and an italicized SCARY. Sandberg doesn’t rely on formulaic jump-scares, because he doesn’t have to. Whether you’re afraid of the dark or not, Diana’s outbursts will go down as some of the most horrific material of 2016.
That said, Sandberg can learn a thing or two from Wan about storytelling. The director’s masterful work on The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 proves that horror can withstand emotional weight and dramatic depth, where Lights Out is more about being scared shitless. There’s nothing wrong with a cinematic amusement park ride, but Martin’s family drama doesn’t stand front-and-center like it should.
Rebecca plays “reluctant girlfriend,” Sophie (Bello’s mother character) preaches about abandonment issues, and Martin remains faithful to his possibly-possessed mother – but Eric Heisserer’s screenplay never effectively matches thematic weightiness to Sandberg’s visual assault on clean underwear. A broken family dynamic merely plays second-fiddle to spectral wood-carving and beady-eyed stare downs.
Performances assert an infectious feeling of inflicted terror, as our screams coincide with on-screen victims. Young Gabriel Bateman’s incredulous deer-in-headlights gaze whenever Diana comes into frame works to balance Teresa Palmer’s forced heroism, and the two make for a lovable demon-hunting team. Adding Alexander DiPersia does aid in accentuating Palmer’s vulnerability, but his best work comes when fleeing from his mano-a-devil encounter with an angry, suplex-happy Diana.
Then there’s Maria Bello, whose battle with mental health issues causes shaking hands and crazed speech patterns, all of which establish a few freakish moments where she forces her son to “meet” Diana face-to-face. Sure, there’s schmaltzy, lovey-dovey dialogue that sometimes feels forced by Heisserer’s pen, yet these moments are harmless when compared to Sandberg’s assertive horror thrills.
Also, good on Sandberg and Heisserer for finding a way to manipulate technology to their advantage. Black lights don’t work to keep Diana away, but still expose her form so we can feast on some nasty revealing shots of her mangled, burnt-up skin. There’s also Bret’s usage of every type of light when fleeing from Diana, from his cell phone to car headlights. Motion sensors work as a death sentence waiting to happen, gunfire flashes only scare Diana away for a moment of invisibility, and a flickering tattoo parlor sign ensnares Rebecca in a Saw-esque trap. It’s simple gimmicking (Diana can only move in darkness), but Lights Out works to explore every possible way its characters can fight against Diana’s deadly attacks.
Mainstream horror hasn’t reassured my genre confidence just yet, but David F. Sandberg’s feature debut is some damn-fine horror representation. His Scare-O-Meter points dangerously into the red, preying on the most innocent fear of boogeymen and bumps in the night. It’s never cheap, never lazy, and never content with a quick, easy chill. Lights Out is for the scream-lovers out there who get off on the adrenaline rush of feeling paralyzing fear, as we fight to hide from Diana’s torment – but can never look away. Horror indulgence with an emphasis on blood-curdling shrieks, just how we like it.
Lights Out is the kind of horror movie that cares more about scares than story, but with horror elements this terrifying, I don't see a problem with that.