By Kevin Redding
“Lights Out” may appear to just be another entry in the often cheap and soulless things-that-go-bump-in-the-night subgenre that reigns supreme in modern horror, but don’t let its seemingly conventional premise, of an evil entity that shows up to haunt when the room is dark, fool you: This movie is scary, clever and — surprisingly — elevating by addressing mental illness and the effect it could have on a family.
First-time director David F. Sandberg takes on the challenge of stretching his original three-minute short — which was praised for being on a level of terror and suspense that most contemporary horror movies fail to reach — into something that sustains its 80-minute runtime and doesn’t grow stale quickly, which is tough when the concept is as simple as this. It’s creepy and makes for some exceptionally eerie visuals (the freaky silhouette appearing and disappearing with the flick of a switch will undoubtedly stick with you before bed) but how can that work for an entire narrative?
As Sandberg showcases, the answer is with great acting, characters we care about, and real human drama that raises the stakes when the inevitable horror fill the screen.
At the center of the scares is a family in crisis. A young boy named Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is left alone with his mentally unstable mother Sophie after his father dies in a mysterious freak accident at work (which makes for a really intense opening sequence). Sophie, played by an incredible Maria Bello, is way too damaged to be raising a kid; she spends most of her time locked away in her room talking to a dead woman named Diana, with whom she spent time in a mental institution when they were both young.
Diana is like the physical embodiment of Sophie’s psychological problems, which allows the movie, through jump scares and a freaky atmosphere, to talk a little about the dangers of trying to hide these issues and the consequences of harboring them — or unleashing them.
Diana makes herself known by standing in the shadows, aggressively attacking her victims, and doing everything she can to ensure that the lights don’t go on and halt her terrorizing, and the lengths to which she’ll go are really unnerving. Even during the day and when all lights are on, she could be hiding in darkness under the bed, or a corner of the room, or strike when the inevitable power shortage occurs. She can also travel to different locations, so safety is never really guaranteed no matter where you go.
Martin seeks refuge in his older sister Rebecca, played with a realistic chip-on-her-shoulder attitude by Teresa Palmer, who has long since moved out to escape her own dealings with her mother and Diana. Over the course of events, she becomes hell-bent on protecting Martin at all costs — even going as far as wanting to be his legal guardian. Together with her unexpectedly likable and resourceful boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) Rebecca helps Martin battle the evil that has latched itself onto their mother in an ending that contains plenty of high-tension scares and a big moment that’s sure to be contentious among viewers, in relation to mental illness.
Produced by modern horror master James Wan, who recently gave us a winning horror movie filled with great acting, characters we care about, and real human drama, with last month’s “The Conjuring 2,” “Lights Out” is truly effective and bold, serving as proof that a PG-13 rating slapped on a movie in this genre doesn’t always mean that it won’t deliver.