UK Release Date: 19th August 2016
Runtime: 81 minutes
Director: David F Sandberg
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Andi Osho, Alicia Vela-Bailey
Synopsis: A pair of siblings are pursued by a demonic presence that can only be seen when the lights are turned off, when their mother unwittingly welcomes the presence into their home.
Lights Out started its life as a short film created by director David F Sandberg for a competition. The short gained the attention of Hollywood and, with the help of genre maestro James Wan, Sandberg has extended his creation to feature length. The film was a hit in America thanks to its incredibly low budget and it has finally arrived on these shores with a tonne of expectation and hype behind it. Unfortunately, it’s a rather unimaginative tale of things that go bump in the dark.
Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is estranged from her mother (Maria Bello) and lives alone in a flat, visited by her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia). Meanwhile, her mother has started talking to an imaginary friend named Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), who can only be seen when the lights are turned off. Rebecca is worried about the danger that Diana might pose to her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) and tries to get him out of the house before he gets hurt.
Lights Out has a devilishly simple central conceit. The idea of a villainous entity that can only be seen in the dark is an interesting one and one that the film finds plenty of ways to illustrate for thrills and excitement in the early stages of the story. Unfortunately, it’s a premise that is best suited to the short film medium and really runs out of steam in the expansion to feature length. Even at a lean 80 minutes, Lights Out feels over-stretched and short of ideas, particularly in terms of its characters, which are barely sketched out at all.
The central performers are all guilty of slightly soap opera-style acting, but it’s tough to blame them when Eric Heisserer’s rather lazy script fails to give them anything more than a few lines of character development. Everyone is an archetype, from Teresa Palmer’s rebellious and over-protective big sister to Alexander DiPersia’s slacker boyfriend. It’s all a little uninspired, which makes it incredibly difficult to care for the characters when they are forced to run for their lives in the third act. Lights Out seems far more interested in its concept than its characters, which is fine in a short film, but is a major drawback when audiences are being asked to invest two hours of their lives on a trip to the cinema.
Sandberg’s direction is solid, showcasing a clear understanding of how to construct jumps and build tension in the style that has become a hallmark of modern haunted house-style horror movies. The final 20 minutes of the film is entertaining, punctuated by glimpses of the creepy entity and innovative uses of light. This invention, however, can only take the film so far and it stalls whenever it decides to focus on the characters. This is particularly true of the finale, which rings a little hollow and lacks the sense of either bleakness or joy that it needed.
Lights Out is merely the latest example of a style of horror film that has had its day. Like found footage before it, the ‘things that go bump in the night’ haunted house movie needs to take a back seat in order for horror to become truly innovative once again. Horror needs another Scream or another Blair Witch Project. It doesn’t need another talented filmmaker simply going through the motions to produce a retread of something that both they, and us, have seen a million times before. No one needs to ride that ghost train again.
Pop or Poop?
There’s an interesting and original central concept at the heart of Lights Out, but there simply isn’t enough in the script to sustain it to feature length. The characters are sketched thinly and the scares aren’t plentiful enough to justify even the relatively brief running time. Sandberg is a capable filmmaker and he certainly has better than this in him.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.