Movie Review: LIGHTS OUT (2016)

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Birthed from a short film that went viral, Lights Out has enjoyed a fascinating journey from YouTube curio to the launchpad of an unknown talent. The brainchild of Swedish writer/director David F. Sandberg, Lights Out is a deconstruction of mental illness wrapped around the trappings of, ostensibly, a B-movie spooky horror feature.

You wouldn’t have credited this as the direction following the original piece Sandberg directed for the Who’s There? short film competition (which he didn’t win). Made in 2013, with Sandberg’s muse and indeed wife Lotta Losten in the frame, Lights Out was a three-minute exercise in near silent, pared back terror. A simple premise; a woman on her way to bed, turning out the light in the hall, only to see the creeping visage of someone illuminated in shadow. Repeatedly turning the light on and off, she sees the same shadow looking at her until, finally, the mottled, decayed body of a straggly, naked woman is standing inches from her when the light goes off.

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Hard to describe, visceral to watch. There’s something primal about the fear that, intentionally or not, evokes the Weeping Angels from British TV series Doctor Who, creatures which of course moved closer to someone the more you blinked, the more you stopped fixing them into the stone creatures, Medusa-style, they were. It’s that terror of missing something, the terror of being invaded almost. The Lights Out short achieved that so brilliantly in such a short space of time, building to a climax where Losten hides under the bed covers as, in the darkness, she hears the invader creep into her bedroom before… well, that would be telling. It’s worth enjoying for the terrifying last shot alone.

Yet all the way through, there’s something oddly post-modern about that short film. Sandberg is able to terrify while also grinning, nodding along, and enjoying the near-satirical ridiculousness of what he reveals the terror to be. He’s unafraid to show it, almost bucking every convention in recent years horror filmmakers have been taught when trying to make a creeping, undulating ghost story.

What the film adaptation gains in theme and character, it sadly loses in satire. Sandberg’s Lights Out, Hollywood-style, tries gainly but in the end fails to capture the short film’s sense of straightforward chilling absurdity, unable to prevent itself falling into the trappings of traditional Tinseltown horror cliche.

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The fault for this doesn’t lie at Sandberg’s door. He came to Hollywood on a wing and a prayer after the short film eclipsed everything else in the competition, became an online sensation, and led to him being courted by so many agents he needed a spreadsheet to make sense of them all. Losten gave up her job and while getting Lights Out off the ground, neither were able to gain fixed accommodation and rented AirBnB’s to keep a roof over their heads. Theirs was a journey seeking the filmmakers American Dream, fuelled by internet adoration, an idea to build on, and presumably a naive determination to learn his craft as he went. Sandberg had so little experience on a film set he even had to ask his camera crew at what point he shouted “Action!”.

He didn’t ultimately make a bad movie, not at all. Lights Out even begins with moments which threaten to come close to that primal, honest sense of indulgent terror the short film exuded. The opening scene, where Billy Burke’s short lived textile factory owner father is stalked by a shadowy female figure who only appears in shadow, sets up our enhanced monster nicely with a powerfully foreboding, schlocky dispatch – not to mention a cameo from Losten, as a nod to Sandberg’s origins.

Indeed honestly, Lights Out only really falls apart once the mystery is stripped away, when it becomes a different kind of movie entirely. There’s something about enigma which Sandberg understood in that short film. We had no idea who that creature was or why it was there, what it wanted from the woman it stalked. Consider the trend lately in horror films working hard to remove the mystery from their mythologies and Lights Out’s miscalculation here becomes clearer.

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The Paranormal Activity franchise is perhaps most guilty of this in recent years, building on a truly unnerving found footage poltergeist original and adding reams of unnecessary complication involving child prophecies, witches covens and gateways to evil dimensions. Can’t it just be a demon we don’t understand? One of the better films to deal with this recently was Blair Witch, Adam Wingard’s very underrated sequel to 1999’s seminal The Blair Witch Project; his film managed to play the same cards, hint at deeper layers of mythos, but allow for more questions than answers by the end. Mind you, even that film deigned to show its monster.

That’s where Lights Out lets itself down. The mythos surrounding Diana adds context but removes mystery and therefore honest terror. She becomes purely a monster to be defeated, one indeed with a level of sympathy behind her given she was a victim of some rather extreme experiments by scientists inside a psychiatric institution trying to cure her severe photosensitivity to light.

Sandberg attempts here to provide some level of explanation for his creature’s inability to exist outside of shadow, but it’s old hat to anyone familiar with The X-Files, specifically it’s second season episode ‘Soft Light’ which covers, to a degree, similar ground. Both are about shadows reclaiming the darkness in murderous ways, except with Diana there is calculated, vengeful agency. Nonetheless, we know too much about her, when we should know far less.

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Before the whole endeavour descends into B-movie run and hide theatrics in the final third, whereby the picture becomes much less interesting, Lights Out manages to combine its creature feature jump scares with an effective family exploration of mental illness. While unlikeable, our lead Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is brittle and emotionally distant with her well meaning, if a little hipster boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) and scared little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) precisely because of the effect Diana had on her childhood, and specifically her mother Sophie (Maria Bello).

Sandberg taps a theme of history repeating, of children suffering, of failed parenting and the need for emotional connection. What happened to Rebecca as a child, seeing and feeling the presence of Diana tethered to their mother, which she repressed into dreams, is now visited upon Martin. Their real father is dead, then their stepfather dies, removing the male from the equation. Sophie is intentionally isolated by a demon within and without, one who needs her more than the other way around if anything, and its the effect this manipulation has on her children which provides Lights Out with its deepest commentary. It’s a shame such depth is sacrificed when the day is done.

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That’s to be expected though, let’s be honest. Lights Out’s job isn’t to provide a searing level of social commentary, it’s to scare you. Whether it will depends on your definition of horror and indeed, subjective as this may be, just how many horror pictures you’ve seen. Though in almost every way it lacks the simple level of homemade chills of Sandberg’s short film, it at least has the capacity to unnerve and equally, at a trim 75 minutes, doesn’t remotely overstay its welcome.

With a sequel in development and David Sandberg involved, Lights Out hopefully will mark the beginning of a career for a talent who deserves to be remembered for more than just a great short movie.

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