Review: Lights Out

Director: David F. Sandberg

Stars: Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Alexander DiPersia

As 2016’s particularly dismal summer season draws to a close, we’re offered up one of the few token mainstream horror titles of the year thus far. Lights Out is the feature directorial debut of David F. Sandberg, who has already been handed the Annabelle sequel to work on.

Lights Out has been sold on a basic, promising premise; there’s a nasty creature that is only visible – or threatening – in the dark. Tapping into the simplest, most historically pervasive fears is usually where horror films succeed the most. If you can lock in to something universal, you have the potential for a real hit. What’s more, the promotional material for Lights Out made it look rather fun. In practice, however, it’s sad to report that this brief 82 minute picture is riddled with problems, not least a deeply awkward sense of outright plagiarism.

Have you seen The Babadook? Yes? Okay, let’s get a little more obscure. Have you seen the second season episode of The X-Files called “Soft Light”? The one about a man’s killer shadow? Yes to that one too? Well take those two ideas, slam them together, and you have Lights Out. It’s hard to decide what’s more shocking; the amount of theft on screen or how brazenly it’s been thrown there. Jennifer Kent and Vince Gilligan might want to get their people on this if they’re so inclined, because I’m pretty sure both of them have actionable cases against Sandberg and screenwriter Eric Heisserer.

Maybe it’s not that surprising that the American mainstream has swallowed The Babadook whole. Any vaguely original work that appears outside of its borders has to be reconstituted and represented, it seems. The US remake is mandatory. But Lights Out is so distasteful not just for how it pretends to be something new, but for how much it misses the point of Jennifer Kent’s film completely, in the process demonising mental health in a manner that quite swiftly raises palms to the face.

Maria Bello plays mental mom Sophie; off-her-meds crazy and shrouding her large family home in near darkness. It’s just the two of them there. Her and her son Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Sophie’s seen off the rest of the family thanks to her penchant for acting batshit bananas. Martin starts to notice his mother talking to a sinister long-clawed figure in the night. Terrified, he stops sleeping. When he starts catching up on his missed slumber at school, estranged big sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is brought back into the fold.

Rebecca, with her lovesick puppy boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) in tow, returns to the family home, discovers a phenomenally convenient box full of exposition, and does what she can to fight off the evil shroud of ‘Diana’; a former patient at mom’s psychiatric ward with a skin condition who seemingly died after being exposed to high volumes of light and now exists in the shadows, whispering in Sophie’s ear.

It’s been a while since mental health issues have been portrayed on screen with such cack-handed clumsiness, but there we go. It’d border on offensive were it not for how that’ll-do lazy Heisserer’s woeful script is at every other turn, making such missteps seem less calculated. From the laughably naff dialogue to the wearisome vagueness of the film’s own mechanics, nothing particularly holds water. The longer you think about it, the less sense most of Lights Out makes, plot holes and questions loom out of the void more worryingly than ‘Diana’. Highlighting many of these will require spoiling some of the third act, which would be a shame as it is here that, as a scare machine, Lights Out finally develops a little clout.

Credit where it’s due, it is in said race to the finish line that the movie starts picking up momentum and gets to playing with its central conceit. Light sources that will keep ‘Diana’ at bay such as UV strips, cell phones and car keyfobs become the difference between life and death. While the film’s most unsettling moments are either found lurking in the basement (of course) or come courtesy of a futile attempt at police intervention. For around 20 to 30 minutes, it’s easy to forget how much is wrong with the movie, because it briefly comes alive.

Too bad that getting there is a bit of a slog, largely thanks to enough uniform bad acting to suggest that it’s not the actors but the material and the direction that needs more attention. Lights Out comes with a significant wedge of cheese, and a lot of this gets deployed by the cast as if they’ve been told to act like the whole thing is a McDonald’s or Coca-Cola commercial. Palmer, Bateman and DiPersia particularly suffer because of this, as they’re all fresh faces. It doesn’t do them a lot of good.

So while The Conjuring 2 opened the summer season in blistering style, Lights Out flicks off the switch with little more than a whimper. That’s a shame. There is enough here – just – to warrant a visit. The deployment of sound, especially in a cinema space, is actually rather nifty (when those long claws start scratching in far-flung corners of the room, it’s hard to resist the urge to glance back over one’s shoulder).  And it’s pleasing when a horror film’s trailer mainly spills secrets from the first half hour of the movie, leaving the run to the finish relatively spoiler-free, as is the case here. Yet the overall laziness and inattentiveness to reason, motive, and, at times, basic quality hampers Lights Out to a significant degree.

Score:  2.5

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