All the best horror movies manage to play on something that’s relatable to us. The films we remember take something fairly simple, and somewhat relatable, and change it just slightly. In recent times there’s been an incredible increase in the horror films out in circulation, and the latest is this. Lights Out is a fairly simple set up: a mother suffers from an imaginary friend due to mental illness, and this is not the friendly give you advice type. The set up is as old as film itself: there is a reason to be afraid of the dark. But what David F. Sandberg manages to do is to take something fairly simple and primal and turn it into a nerve shredding ordeal.
Based on his early short film, Sandberg has crafted a tense (if uneven) horror film. Teresa Palmer is great as the lead heroine, one that you can believe in, who seems to actually inhabit the real world as opposed to horrors former staple of strong minded cardboard women, Palmer is no newcomer, and this performance is done with steely confidence, while the real ace in the hole is Maria Bello as her mother. Suffering from mental illness, Bello manages to make her character both sympathetic but also someone you can somewhat blame for the ordeal that is going on. It’s well balanced and well thought out.
The film doesn’t do much to break the mould, and the inclusion of a small child – the very talented Gabriel Bateman – seems to hark back to the history of horror cinema as much as it seems to be ripped from the horror movie hand book. But, there’s a fair amount to like here. It’s clear that Sandberg has an affection for the genre, and wants to make a film that does the works he enjoys proud, and in that respect, he does. The tense parts are as well directed as anything Wes Craven did in his seminal works, and the jump scares are what you would expect from the production stable of James Wan. While it doesn’t always come together, there is an element that the film is only just holding on to its good ideas.
As with all of these works, there’s also time for a bit of silly exposition which does nothing to aid the story. The evil spirit Diana is ripped from a thousand and one different movies. She has the not-quite-real look of Mama, while having the silly back story sections of Samara/Sadako from the Ring films. As with all horror films, the explanation of why the spirit exists isn’t all that interesting and most of the time slows the film down, as it does here. Are we really watching to find out why there is a scary dark dwelling spirit? No, as with any decent film we check logic in at the door and want to be scared, and this is where the film begins to fall apart.
While the use of the dark is great, the film wastes its best ideas on silly jump scares and unnecessary plotting: depression. Maria Bello is such a talented actress that she can portray a life time of conflict and pain with just her eyes, and the scenes in which she looks to her kids with the weight of a woman struggling with depression is heartbreaking, but it’s not the whole film. While works like The Babadook relished the idea of grief being the reason a monster enters the world, this film thinks it has something profound to say, but in reality there is an element of smugness. The use of mental illness is such a good idea, such an interesting concept that the jump scare parts undercut all the good will.
As far as horror films go, this isn’t reinventing the genre in any meaningful way, but it has solid scares, and confident performances and it’s nice that an original idea is out there in the horror world before we get bogged down with a third Ring and third Blair Witch film. It’s an ambitious debut and bodes well for Sandberg’s future career, but it’s more of a late night shocker than a ground breaking chiller. Best seen at home, with the lights out.