Alibi V.25 No.29 • July 21-27, 2016 

Film Review

Lights Out

Under-illuminated ghost story is too dim to really be scary

Lights Out
I hope somebody paid the electric bill.

Lights Out (2016)

Directed by David F. Sandberg

Cast: Teresa Plamer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello

With 2007’s Paranormal Activity, Hollywood locked down an easily exploitable new revenue stream—the ultra-cheaply produced haunted house movie. That particular series has been incredibly successful, turning $15,000 budgets into $100 million windfalls and becoming a sensation among moviegoers who don’t know the difference between being scared and being startled. Among the biggest beneficiaries of the movie industry’s new obsession with “jump out and go boo!” ghost stories is writer-director-producer James Wan, who—after the success of the first Saw movie—turned his attentions from the short-lived torture porn genre to such supernatural fare as Dead Silence, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, Insidious: Chapter 3, The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, Annabelle and his latest producing effort, Lights Out.

Lights Out, directed by newbie Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg, is based on an inventive 2013 short that took Sandberg to a number of international film festivals. The feature-length version—fleshed out byEric Heisserer, the writer of 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot and 2011’s The Thing reboot—is expectedly light on story and character and originality. But it’s still probably enough to give lovers of inexpensively assembled ghost stories a good goosing.

Going into the theater, you know exactly what sort of film you’re in store for—the kind in which the TV commercials don’t show you anything other than dim, infrared footage of people in actual movie theaters jumping out of their seats. Sandberg, who may or may not have a good film in him, does his best to exploit the mildly clever concept of his original short, playing off the universal fear of the dark. The results—like the lightbulbs in this film—work only intermittently.

The film introduces us to Rebecca (Australian model Teresa Palmer from Warm Bodies). Rebecca is a shell-shocked goth-lite chick living in a grubby loft in the city and trying to remain emotionally detached from her perfectly sincere hipster boyfriend (TV show day player Alexander DiPersia). One day Rebecca’s underaged half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman, who was in Annabelle) shows up at her doorstep. Seems his father has been brutally murdered and his mother (who is also Rebecca’s estranged mom) is acting even crazier than normal. Martin mentions being attacked by mom’s creepy invisible friend Diana. Rebecca blows off Martin’s concerns as mere childish imagination—even though she still has the scars from when she was attacked as a child by a creepy invisible woman named Diana!

Lights Out, directed by newbie Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg, is based on an inventive 2013 short that took Sandberg to a number of international film festivals.

A visit to the old homestead confirms, however, that mom (Maria Bello, who’s generally better than this kind of stuff) is definitely off her meds. A quick investigation—generally consisting of huge chunks of exposition falling directly in characters’ laps—leads Rebecca to learn that mom was committed, as a child, to one of those creepy cinematic insane asylums where she befriended a strange child named Diana. Diana, it seems, died under mysterious circumstances and is now busy haunting mentally fragile mom and her poor, emotionally crippled kids.

The gimmick here is that the ghost can’t appear in the light. So naturally, characters arm themselves with barely functioning flashlights and go creeping around in the darkness an awful lot. Ghosts, darkness, a movie theater: These are elements that should work. For such a simple premise, however, Lights Out goes to great lengths to explain itself. The more this film talks about its plot, the more confusing the underlying mythology gets. In the end Diana becomes less of a ghost and more of an X-Man supervillain. It’s clear, of course, that Lights Out wants to be a Paranormal Activity/The Conjuring/Insidious-style franchise. Heisserer, in giving Diana such a complex backstory, obviously imagines he’s created the next Freddy Krueger. He hasn’t.

Sandberg’s direction is functional, but lacks notable style. He tries his best to ratchet up the tension, but it just doesn’t work well for this type of film. Things have to jump out at you when you least expect it. So building tension kind of defeats that purpose. Sandberg tries to accomplish his goals by mostly killing the film’s score. Slowly building strings screeching on a soundtrack tend to clue you in as to when the scare is coming. So Sandberg’s initial thinking is spot-on. In theory. In practice, however, the film has a lot of very dull stretches in which we quietly wait for something to happen. It’s not as bad as the criminally stultifying Paranormal Activity films—which are less movies and more Magic Eye pictures with what might be ghosts in them. Still, Lights Out is considerably lower on the fright meter than the commercials would have you believe. If you don’t immediately screech like a castrato when someone throws a rubber spider at you, this is not the horror film for you.

Clearly the effort of a first-time feature filmmaker, Lights Out is cheaply conceived and frugally made. (I don’t even think the characters have a single wardrobe change.) It’s got just enough suspenseful, arm-grabbing, PG-13-rated moments to make a decent date night selection. But it’s hardly the kind of film to make any measurable, long-term impact on the genre or the audience’s imagination. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you won’t see two or three increasingly chintzy sequels show up on VOD. Now that, my friends, is scary.