Nov 2, 2016
Lights Out (2016)
It’s an experience I’m sure we’re all familiar with. It’s the middle of the night and you’ve just snuck out of your room for a quick snack. Everyone else is asleep, so you move carefully so as not to wake anyone up—yet every step you take is done in quick tippy-toe sprints, just so you don’t have to stay in the dark too long. Or maybe you’ve just woken up from a dream, and your first instinct is to run as fast as you can from your bed to the light switch. Just to get your bearings, of course. Not because you need to be really, really sure there’s nobody there behind you.
No? It’s just me? Oh… okay, then. Ahem.
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At the risk of sounding like Edward Carnby, there’s a good reason we’re afraid of the dark: It deprives us of our most immediate means of interaction with our environment, and thus challenges any basic control and understanding we might have over it. To have our abilities denied or diminished is something we all fear; and like all such universal fears, horror cinema has a long and distinguished history of exploiting it.
With its beautifully simple premise—a person haunted by a demonic entity that only appears in the dark—and the presence of The Conjuring’s James Wan behind the scenes as co-producer, Lights Out had every chance of being a worthy entry in that venerable tradition. Originally a three-minute short made as a submission to the Bloody Cuts horror short contest, Lights Out was released online December 30, 2013 and quickly became a viral hit: as of this writing, it’s garnered over 12 million hits on YouTube, and 10 million views on Vimeo. After getting contacted by producer Lawrence Grey, director David F. Sandberg agreed to expand his short into a feature-length film.
While nothing revolutionary, the original Lights Out short was a well-paced little yarn that operated on an efficient use of light, timing, and space. With a little imagination and ingenuity, it seemed like a feature-length version could at the very least broaden its range of scares by experimenting with the possibilities offered by the basic setup. Unfortunately, with a few too rare, too late exceptions, that’s not what happens here.
The film opens with what amounts to an extended remake of the original short, with the same woman (David F. Sandberg’s wife Lotta Losten) being stalked in the dark by a naked stringy-haired female. Only this time, instead of an apartment, she’s in a clothing warehouse stacked with creepy mannequins, finishing her late-night shift as a janitor while her boss (Billy Burke) does some research on his wife’s mental illness. After ignoring his employee’s warnings, poor Billy gets predictably hunted, trapped, and gruesomely slashed to death by the entity. At least his torture didn’t last five whole movies this time.
This sudden and violent death (that apparently went completely uninvestigated by authorities) leads the man’s widow Sophie (Maria Bello) to retreat further into isolation and illness. When her young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) catches her talking to an imaginary friend that subsequently manifests itself in the form of the murderous entity, his resulting insomnia causes estranged stepdaughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) to try and take matters into her own hands by essentially kidnapping her brother in order to protect him from what appears to be an insane and dangerously irresponsible mother. Unfortunately, the entity follows them back to her apartment, where it proceeds to terrorize them.
After Martin’s schoolteacher coaxes Rebecca to return him to his mother’s custody, the entity is revealed to be Diana, the jealous spirit of a girl who befriended Sophie during her stay in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager until a doctor’s rather unorthodox method of treating Diana’s skin condition resulted in her death. With Sophie’s mental state deteriorating by the minute and Martin’s life in mortal danger, it’s up to Rebecca to save her family and get rid of Diana’s evil influence once and for all.
You can probably guess the film’s biggest problem just from reading the summary above: It needlessly complicates what should be a fairly straightforward premise with unnecessary narrative layers and never manages to justify them. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (whose writing on the Nightmare on Elm Street remake and The Thing prequel has already earned him the ire of horror fans everywhere) tosses in a lot of potentially interesting ideas connecting fear of the dark to fear of loneliness, and monsters to personifications of depression (an idea executed a million times better in The Babadook), but lacks the insight to explore them beyond surface level. He can’t simply let his audience identify with his characters or infer his story’s themes and subtext from their behavior; he needs to put his ideas directly in their mouths with lines like “my teacher says sometimes you’ve just got to face your fears,” or “she latched onto your depression”*. This decision to loudly explain to the audience what they should be afraid of and why is especially baffling considering its very premise is rooted in what is, by definition, a fear of the unknown. It’s like if the ghosts from The Innocents all gathered around Deborah Kerr during one of her many nightly walks and started chanting, “You need to get laid! You need to get laid!”
[*As I’m quoting the film from memory, these lines may not be 100% accurate. But you get the idea.]
Indeed, of all the story elements affected by this approach, Diana is the one who suffers the most: Instead of being an abstract threat whose significance could be extrapolated from the scares she produces, she’s given both a name and a detailed profile as a crazy escapee from the kind of mental health facility that the authorities in Silent Hill would have shut down. It’s an all-too-familiar background that only makes her boring and predictable. The only truly disturbing thing about her is the method by which the screenplay chooses to eliminate her; without giving too much away, suffice to say that it sends a terrible message to depression sufferers, especially when compared to the aforementioned Babadook’s more nuanced conclusion.
As a director, David F. Sandberg is competent enough to jerk a few jolts out of what little material Heisserer gives him to work with, but seldom manages to transcend the screenplay’s lack of creativity. Of all the methods they could have used to help us escape from Diana or drag us into her dark embrace, the duo consistently relies on the safest and most hackneyed of all: Dark corridors slowly explored in alternating POV and medium shots, flickering lights, and abandoned mannequins whose sole purpose is to justify cribbing a jump-scare from the climax of Psycho… all to a soundtrack of screeching chords and loud bangs that dulls the senses when it should be enhancing them. Why are so many directors reluctant to trust in the power of light, shadow, and movement?
To be fair to Sandberg, there are occasions where he does just that: Rebecca’s first nightly confrontation with Diana stands out thanks to the effective use of a neighboring tattoo parlor’s flashing red neon sign. Near the climax, a moonlit garden and driveway separated by an arch turn into a deadly obstacle course for Diana and a prospective victim to play on. In both scenes, Sandberg uses the environment as a diegetic tool that affects both mood and narrative outcomes; light and shadow become unpredictable agents of fate that can forebode doom even as they hold the key to salvation.
In these too-brief instances, collectively-ingrained memories of childhood fears come to life in spectacular ways, and we get a glimpse of the kind of film Lights Out could have been if its creators had taken full advantage of the opportunities offered by its setup. Unfortunately, the impact of those moments is dampened by the overall sense of déjà vu induced by the plot’s structure and execution.
But judging by the box office numbers and Rotten Tomatoes score, I’m clearly in the minority on this. As of this writing, Lights Out has grossed over $135 million (almost 30 times its original $5 million budget) and has earned a score of 76% from Rotten Tomatoes critics. And I’ll admit, in spite of the film’s many disappointments, there is something undeniably inspirational about it: If you’re an aspiring filmmaker with passion, a camera, and a YouTube and/or Vimeo account, your efforts might pay off. Maybe someone, somewhere in Hollywood will watch your video and pay you to turn it into a feature film that will gross millions. Just make sure you get to write the script, too.