Lights Out (2016)

You were right to be afraid of the dark.

Back in 2014 filmmaker and animator David F. Sandberg uploaded a short film onto his Vimeo account titled Lights Out, the three-minute shocker starring his wife Lotta Losten as a lone woman who notices a creepy silhouette after toggling her hallway light switch — the video scaring the bejeebers out of anyone brave enough to sit through it. After catching the attention of producers James Wan, The Conjuring 2 (2016), and Lawrence Grey, Last Vegas (2013), Sandberg was offered the opportunity to expand on his viral video sensation with a Lights Out feature, a sharp debut with a compact runtime that plays on people’s primal fear of the dark with a thin angular entity that lurks in the dimness.

Opening with an almost beat-for-beat recreation of the original material, Lights Out begins in a shadowy textile factory with Losten (this time) playing an employee who’s shutting shop for her boss Paul (Billy Burke), when she notices a distorted spindle-fingered figure after turning off a workroom light. Here, we’re introduced to the creature and its ‘rules,’ which are pretty basic — essentially, when the lights go out, a shadow dwelling nasty appears. Put the lights back on and she’s gone. Needless to say, don’t expect the lights to stay on for long.

'It's behind me ... isn't it?'
‘It’s behind me … isn’t it?’

After a rather gnarly intro, viewers meet the flick’s main players, the fractured family at the center of the demon’s wicked gaze. Teresa Palmer plays Rebecca, a rebellious young woman whose personal issues have lead to estrangement from her mentally unstable mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). See, Rebecca has long moved out of her family home and into an apartment above a tattoo parlor in downtown L.A. Things ignite for Rebecca after she receives a phone call from a concerned counselor who informs the twentysomething that her younger half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) had been constantly falling asleep at school. With Martin attributing his lack of sleep to the pair’s mother whom he claims had been acting stranger than normal by speaking to a omnipresent figure in her poorly lit home, Rebecca opts to become Martin’s new guardian — well, that’s until child services intervene and send him back to live with his mom.

Viewers eventually learn that the ghostly presence lurking in the dark is what’s left of someone called Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), a childhood friend of Sophie’s who was diagnosed with a rare condition that made her skin sensitive to the light — think Samara from The Ring (2002) or the kind of creature you’d see in Japanese-type ghost story. Now, with Rebecca intent on looking out for her little half-bro, she is forced to confront the nightmarish situation she thought she had left behind.

'So, what happens when I flick this again?'
‘So, what happens when I flick this again?’

Just like most macabre multiplex movies, Lights Out is at its weakest when the screenplay by horror scribe Eric Heisserer, The Thing (2011), delves into the inevitable yet generic back-story stuff, the exposition subduing some of the flick’s grim atmosphere. Thankfully, these moments of dialogue are rather short and don’t really linger; Sandberg taking every opportunity to thrust audiences back into those darkly lit spaces. When it comes to the ‘horror’ element, Sandberg handles the scares like a pro, particularly the way in which he fashions inventive jolts with efficiency whilst toying with different modes of lighting, the Swedish filmmaker rarely relying on forced shock tactics. This is supported by some glowing work from cinematographer Marc Spicer, Furious 7 (2015), who creates a series of eerie yet clever compositions by means of working/ non-working light sources.

The performances are rather flashy too, the entire cast selling the family connection and grounding some of the flick’s sillier sequences. The under-appreciated Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies (2013), makes for a likable heroine and protective sister, the 30-year-old Australian bringing more complexity to the character of Rebecca than a less skilled actress might have; likewise, Maria Bello, Prisoners (2013), does a commendable job as the unstable mother Sophie, Bello painting a shocking picture of an unhinged parent who’s lost control. Special mention also goes out to Alexander DiPersia, Hemingway (2012), who portrays Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret — whom she keeps at arms length — DiPersia bringing gusto to his somewhat underwritten role.

'Look closely ... I'm not Kristen Stewart!'
‘Look closely … I’m not Kristen Stewart!’

With a terrifying hook at its core — one that’s explored to startling effect — a strong cast and an excellent low-grade production, Lights Out is another winner for producer Wan, and a triumph for first-time director David F. Sandberg, who proves that he has what it takes to craft a suspenseful, arm-squeezing fright fest. While admittedly not as effective as the original short, Lights Out is one of the better B-grade horror entries of late. Either way, after sitting through this wicked gem, chances are you’ll be sleeping with the lights on for a couple of nights.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Lights Out is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia