Horror films are wily things. The most effective ones strike at the inner core of your psyche where irrational fears reside. Fear of the dark is one of those lingering tenants that nudge us whenever there's a dark alley, a musty unlit basement, or a long echoey walk in a desolate subterranean parking lot. The boogeyman is always out there waiting for you. Lights Out capitalizes on this precise fear with a lean, mean and satisfying narrative that culminates in a good little film.
This is the first feature from writer and director David F. Sandberg and it's based on his 2013 short of the same name. Expanded from three minutes to 81 minutes, the film is slight but cleverly builds on its original concept giving us enough of an origin story without over explanation, well-drawn characters, and a definitive conclusion. Side note: The ending of the original short has given me nightmares to this day.
Performances are solid. Teresa Palmer (from Warm Bodies) is up to the emotional challenge of dealing with her mentally ill mother (the always fabulous Maria Bello), her nettlesome younger brother (the doleful Gabriel Bateman recently seen in Cinemax's Outcast pilot), and a creature that appears only when the lights are out.
The film is produced by James Wan (The Conjuring) who stumbled upon the short and decided to give the director an opportunity to broaden his vision. Wan's on-set presence is felt in the final film with the swooping camera moves, quick cuts, and mainly practical effects. The pace is good, and the characters oddly do what normal people would do in this kind of situation. I was surprised by how quickly everyone accepted that a supernatural creature was attacking them but I think if something out of thin air was physically attacking me, I'd accept it pretty quickly myself. And no that claw mark as not the wind!
The film's main stumbling point is the screenplay and the awkward dialogue with loads of exposition lodged into long, chunky monologues. Kids do not talk like that. Adults do not talk like that to children. I suppose the film is trying to be efficient but unfortunately, the unimaginative solution of telling the backstory is having the characters narrate flashbacks. This is much too mundane for such a nifty film. Also, it can also be argued that the film is making a bold statement about mental illness and the outcome is politically frustrating.
Lights Out is solid, fun-size film that deserves to be seen. And then feared later than night when all your lights are off. It's a good first feature and look forward to Sandberg's next movie, which happens to be Annabelle 2.