Fear of the dark is a primal thing. For kids, learning that there’s nothing to fear lurking in the shadows at night is just a part of growing up until inevitably their imagination gets curbed and tucked away, bedtime worries about monsters and unspeakable evils eventually replaced by thoughts and concerns about the realities of adulthood. But every now and then, even as adults, that fear can creep back when faced with darkness; that idea that you’re not alone prickling the hairs on the back of your neck when you think you are, daring you to ponder if maybe there was something more to those childish concerns.
Countless movies have played with such an idea over the years, and the latest to arrive is David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out. Inspired by Sandberg’s own short film - which you should definitely check out before seeing this - Lights Out posits that things are, in fact, lurking in the shadows, outside of normal comprehension but just as real as you and I.
The premise is simple: A young woman named Rebecca (played by Teresa Palmer) and her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) find themselves haunted by a terrifying supernatural being known only as Diana, whose adversity to light means she lives and hunts in darkness. Along with Rebecca’s not-boyfriend, the siblings discover that Diana has ties to their own mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), who may have welcomed a force into their lives that’s out of her control.
If you’ve seen the trailers, then it’s no secret that Diana’s origins are complete with genre staples like a shady mental institution and even shadier experiments, and the film quickly arrives at and moves past trying to explain her and her connection to Sophie in an effort to keep things moving along. Not everything about Diana is explained, but that’s perfectly okay, as enough mystery is retained about her to keep this nightmare as streamlined as possible.
There’s really very little fat to Lights Out’s narrative, though some time is spent early on setting up family drama: Rebecca wants little to do with her mother until CPS contacts her about her little brother falling asleep at school while Sophie’s depression raises the question of whether or not she’s fit to raise Martin alone in the wake of a close loss (at the hands of Diana, no less, though none of the characters are quite clued in to this fact at first). However, it all comes together pretty quickly, as the drama gets put aside when Rebecca and Martin team up to help their mother overcome her issues and, of course, Diana, who is just as eager to get them out of the picture as they are her.
The scares are doled out at a steady pace throughout the film, and thankfully - and surprisingly - there are no cheap jump scares. This is Diana’s show through and through, and anytime the film starts to wade too far into expository territory or seems ready to veer into stagnancy, she’s right there to keep both characters and audience members on their toes. She is, predictably, the highlight of the film, and she doesn’t play around; even when cops show up, she doesn’t conveniently stop her antics until they’ve left in disbelief as so many evil cinematic forces are wont to do. She’s a vicious animal, and judging from the screams she kept eliciting from my audience every time she showed up, people will be thinking twice this weekend about sleeping in the dark.
The acting from the cast is far better than average for such genre fare, thanks to the fact that the characters themselves are - for the most part - refreshingly smart and as proactive as they can be when dealing with such an otherworldly threat. Though Palmer gets the most to do in terms of an arc involving stepping up for the sake of the family, Bello gets the opportunity to play a woman who has been, essentially, broken by her depression, and how Diana uses that to get what she wants helps make the whole family situation tragic and relatable. It’s hard enough to help someone battle their demons as it is, let alone doing so with an actual demon-like figure thrown into the mix.
Both the sound design and the cinematography are solid for this type of film; inky blacks in every crevasse beg your eyes to wander in search of Diana, while every creak and jitter layers on the unease, though there’s a tendency to rely on spiking the music with every scare that’s common of the genre but sometimes grating nonetheless. The usage of light is outstanding, too, and a number of creative ways are conjured up in dealing with Diana, from a cell phone screen to the quick flash of a gun barrel. Again, it’s all in service of making Diana as scary as she can be, and it works wonders.
As I mentioned, this is an incredibly lean film. It has a little to say about depression and family bonds, but really it’s a vehicle designed to scare its audience and not a whole lot more. To that end, it’s undeniably efficient, but nothing ever really pushes it to the next level. Like the shadowy monster haunting its characters, the film is restless and eager to just get to the point, and if you’re looking for something deeper, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But if you’re just hungry for a good thrill and an effective reminder of why we all grow up fearing the dark, look no further: Lights Out is waiting for you.
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