Movie Review: Lights Out
By Ben Gruchow
August 3, 2016

That's one way to save on the electricity bill.

Lights Out handicaps itself in the most favorable way it possibly can, and that way is to possess an antagonist that is never explicated. The basic identity of the creature at the center of this film is explained in a plot sense, all right (at least to the bare minimum of supernatural-horror standards), but the scene where the authority figure arrives and dissects origin and motivation never arrives, and that makes all the difference. This film depends on inexplicability for most of its visceral impact.

Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is having trouble sleeping, which has something to do with his mother Sophie (Maria Bello). The two live alone after a grisly accident leaves him fatherless and with a mother in the grip of something deeper than depression. And Sophie seems to talk to someone or something unseen at night. We’re introduced to the something pretty quickly, although the movie wisely doesn't make the characters wait too much longer than that. It takes the form of a shadowy woman who moves in pistonlike staccato motions, sort of like a cross between Samara from The Ring and Mama. Her name is Diana; her presence introduces us to Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). These three make up the consequential arm of the movie's cast, although a couple of characters lurk on the periphery as potential victims.

This is based on a 2013 short of the same name, by the same director, in tone and spirit if not in the letter of the storytelling. That short is breathtaking in its purity; it consists of only two real scenes and an equivalent number of “scare” moments. The ratio works out in more or less the same ways in the feature version. This is an 81-minute feature that begins, ends, and behaves like a short film. It concludes with a response to the story’s central question - who/what is the shadowy woman? where did she come from? - but not, gratifyingly, a torturous and long-winded exposition dump and a protracted battle or struggle.

Rebecca’s job in the film, initially to be the foil to her kinda-sorta boyfriend’s advances, quickly morphs into caretaker; Martin is so terrified at home that he falls asleep in school, which leads Rebecca to reestablish contact with Sophie. Something similar to this happened when Rebecca was a girl, given the advent of the same unseen or little-seen figure calling itself Diana. The movie wisely cloaks Sophie’s condition under a reasonable facsimile of reclusiveness and deep depression; when we look at her, we don’t necessarily see a supernatural influence so much as a woman worn down by either crisis or terror or both. Terror of what? Maybe it’s having Martin taken away from her, like Rebecca was. Maybe it’s just the crisis of losing multiple boyfriends and husbands, either to sudden departure or death. Bello provides layers to the character that the script doesn’t really give her or us the blueprint for, and it helps immeasurably.

This means she’s also tasked with doing most of the movie’s heavy lifting as far as audience investment; Palmer is functional enough as Teresa, but her character isn’t called upon to really factor into the story until the very end. Bateman makes more of an impression, but his performance is full of the expressions and tics and intonation that belie an unmodulated performer. This should be expected (he just hit double digits and he’s only been acting since 2014), and the way it takes us out of the moment really isn’t down to any fault of the actor’s own. That, somewhat unfortunately, must go to David F. Sandberg. This is his first feature, and he reveals himself to be a promising craftsman of the horror frame; the second appearance of Diana (right after the “light switch” sequence from the trailers and the original short) is a terrific use of light and shadow, and it showcases one of the movie’s best visual tricks: the glint of light reflecting off of eyes in the middle of an otherwise indistinct outline.

He also doesn’t try too hard to score an atmospheric or creepy moment, which I will also put a checkmark in the plus column for; he frequently doesn’t try hard enough, and that’s a different story. There are moments like that early scene, and the final act (a moment at the movie’s climax, involving an dimly-lit police officer in a doorway, is sincerely frightening), but in between there are a lot of passages that seem to just sit there and wait for something to follow up with. I attribute that to Sandberg’s greenery, in part; the blocking and camera angles in these sequences are stationary and functional but unexciting.

And Sandberg, for all that his heart is in the right place, can’t help but give us a portion of backstory conveyed by filtered, scratchy, old-film digital work, which a) recalls earlier films that have done the same thing with more precision and better audiovisual design, notably 2006’s Silent Hill; and b) only serves to undercut the menace of the present-day Diana to a degree that really wasn’t needed. We’ve already been given enough information to know that she/it can appear wherever and whenever she wants to; the movie cheats in a familiar way by not clarifying what she/it can and can’t do under different circumstances (sometimes light just makes her disappear or phase out of existence; sometimes it seems to burn her physically).

That elliptical nature and style of storytelling, so endemic to the proceedings in a horror short, still ultimately prevails: we are given just enough context to remain nervous and jumpy whenever there is a dark corner of the frame, which is almost all the time. Like It Follows from last year, this is a simple narrative given the texture of a waking nightmare by its antagonist and surroundings. It is not as pervasively unmanning as that film was when it revved up, but it’s in the same ballpark. Lights Out will probably work just as well on the senses on a home screen with proper sound as it does in theaters, and this is in several ways a compliment. It is not built to entertain a sequel and I cannot imagine what one might do besides further deconstruct, demystify, and declaw the menace of this film’s presence…but on its own, it’s a tidy offering of late-summer horror cinema, giving us the promise of potential in its filmmaker. I like seeing that in a film.