Sometimes you go into a movie as a horror fan just hoping that what you’re about to see will deliver the proverbial goods. Such was the case for me with Lights Out; I fell in love with David F. Sandberg’s brilliant short film by the same name when I first saw it, and so I was curious just how well his three-minute tale of terror would translate for longer-form storytelling. Honestly, though, Lights Out ended up being even more fun and terrifying than I could have possibly expected, as it brilliantly preys on our most primal fears and thoughtfully delves into mental health issues, with its villain becoming a metaphor for those who struggle with the all-consuming afflictions of the mind.
Lights Out centers on a young woman named Rebecca (Teresa Palmer from Warm Bodies) who left home years ago after her father vanished on her unstable mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), out of fear for her own safety. Sophie remarried and had a son named Martin (Gabriel Bateman) with her second husband, Paul (Billy Burke), but soon enough we see that her psychosis is only getting worse, leaving Martin squarely in harm’s way. After being dealt another huge blow in her personal life, Sophie once again becomes obsessed with a shadowy figure named Diana, who can only travel through the darkness and has ties to Sophie’s stint in a mental hospital back when she was a teenager.
In Sophie’s mind, everything is fine and Diana is just her “good friend,” but after narrowly escaping several attacks by the undoubtedly evil presence, both Rebecca and Martin realize that they must find a way to stop Diana before she fully takes hold of their mother’s fragile psyche and does away with the siblings once and for all.
For his feature film debut, Swedish director David F. Sandberg does a fantastic job on Lights Out. The keys to what makes the movie work as well as it does are great characters and the fact that when it comes to the scares, Sandberg keeps things simple, and it all works beautifully. With the film centered on a creature who can only lurk in the darkness, Lights Out feels precisely like watching your childhood nightmares come to life on the big screen, making for several great moments of tension in which, as the viewer, you keep an eye on every single shadow and darkened corner in the film just to see if Diana might possibly be hiding there, waiting for another victim to claim.
Writer Eric Heisserer not only expands upon the mythology of Sandberg’s short film, but also crafts an intelligent and emotional screenplay about an embattled family who has suffered for years under the heavy hand of Sophie’s mental illness. The strain of her mom’s unstable mindset forced Rebecca to run off, and has made the young woman put up unnecessary walls in her personal life to protect herself, and it’s the reason poor Martin has had to grow up faster than he should have. And while Sophie spends much of the movie in denial over Diana’s malicious intentions, there’s a beautifully haunting moment in Lights Out when we see her maternal instincts finally kick in and realize that nothing in this world is more important than her children.
Heisserer also does a commendable job creating the compelling character of Rebecca’s boyfriend, Bret (played by Alexander DiPersia), who in most other horror films would be a toss-away character, but instead becomes a driving force in the third act of Lights Out (there are many great light/dark gags in the movie, but DiPersia might have the best one of all). As someone who has sadly grown accustomed to watching supporting characters be easily dismissed (and forgotten) in the horror genre, it was nice to see Bret become a major component to this story in the end.
I was a big fan of Palmer’s coming out of Warm Bodies, and as the driving force in Lights Out, she’s a fantastic final girl, taking the reigns with a desperate determination once she realizes her whole family is the target of Diana’s wrath. Bateman, who may be one of the best child actors working today (his appearance on the new series Outcast is on another level), practically steals Lights Out away from his older cast mates with a performance steeped in a child-like panic I’m sure many of us felt as kids whenever we thought there might be something hiding under our beds or watching us from inside our closets.
For Lights Out, Sandberg mostly relies on old-school tricks and techniques to bring Diana to life instead of utilizing CGI, and that choice pays off again and again (there’s just something so great about a tangible villain). Veteran cinematographer Marc Spicer served as the DP for Lights Out, and his ability to not only manipulate the darkness, but also shoot a horror movie that’s quite beautiful to watch, adds so much to the project. Another key component to Lights Out is the stellar sound design, which will undoubtedly have me looking over my shoulder any time I hear weird scratching noises from now on.
Overall, Lights Out is real-deal filmmaking, folks—a horror movie that’s absolutely worth your attention when it comes out later this summer. It has a wickedly fun story that moves with a delicate precision, yet it’s also a thoughtful exploration of fear and the horrific effects mental illness can have not just on people tormented by such maladies, but also on those who love and support those who suffer. I initially was not necessarily looking forward to Annabelle 2 (which goes into production soon), but knowing that Sandberg is taking the helm of that franchise has made an immediate fan out of me, as I’ll be in line to see whatever he does next as a director.
Movie Score: 4/5