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