Remember the short period during the first half of the 2000s, when horror movies were invaded by monsters and ghosts that shun the light (They, Boogeyman, Darkness Falls and a few DTV-titles)? Here is another entry into that peculiar sub-subgenre.
It was a a few months ago when I saw the short horror movie Lights Out, directed by David F. Sandberg, for the very first time on YouTube. Enthused by its chilling brilliance, I immediately devoured the Swedish director’s whole short movie output (all of which entries star his wife Lotta Losten) and was not disappointed. As we know, short movies are often a disguised “letter of application” to get a feature-length movie directing gig and I was hoping for it to happen. And see, none other than the popular horror movie director James Wan (The Conjuring) hired Sandberg to direct a long version of his breakthrough effort, with Wan set as producer.
But the question was, was Sandberg able to transfer all the qualities of Lights Out into his big screen debut or did something get lost in translation? I wanted to find out.
Some years ago, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) moved out of home into an apartment, leaving her depressive mother Sophie (Maria Bello) and brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) behind, in an attempt to lead a normal and independent life. One day Martin turns up at her door, claiming that Sophie started hallucinating again in a manic fit, talking to her imaginary friend “Diana”. Plagued by a bad conscience, Rebecca wants to take custody of Martin to spare him of the same miserable childhood she had. But with Martin, yet another “guest” moves in: the apparently not-as-imaginary-as-thought Diana, a ghost that dwells in the dark and kills in the shadows, but cannot step into the light.
More Wan than Sandberg
I have found myself appreciating James Wan’s post- Saw career output more and more with each movie, but it seems that he is turning his particular ghost story formula into a distinctive, recognizable brand which he imposes on the director in his role as a producer. Which is a shame, because considering the creativity director Sandberg brought to his short movies, I am sure he could have made something more memorable if he had been allowed to.
As it is, we are dealing with a typical James Wan product that includes all the elements that assumedly turned the Conjuring and Insidious movies into successes. Means the plot follows the pattern of pretty much all ghost movies of the last decade. The more ominous entity of the short movie has been replaced with a creature that naturally has a tragic backstory. Said story is at times borderline intriguing at least, but also very reminiscent of that of Samara in the US-version of The Ring. We are treated to plenty of jump scares, often enhanced by sudden noises/music and of course the proven standard visuals of black claws, glowing eyes and rotten faces. A few suspense moments are quite inspired, but at most times it oddly feels like the movie was holding back for some reason, as if Wan was afraid of getting sued for giving the audience a heart attack.
While not really fleshed out, the subtext dealing with depression and mental illness adds a much needed interesting spin to the plot, but only scratches on the surface of something more compelling. Another saving grace are the suspenseful last 10 minutes, ending with a comparatively gutsy, if predictable moment. The cast is likeable, featuring a welcome comeback by Maria Bello, whose heartfelt performance might be the best of the bunch. Also, with a running time of a brisk 81 minutes, Lights Out will never stretch your patience.
Earning $ 71 millions on a $ 5 million budget, Lights Out is the kind of classic horror movie success story every genre producer is dreaming of. I hope this gives Sandberg some clout to choose more interesting projects and exact more creative control in the future, getting a chance to show us his full potential.
Lights Out is reasonably well-made, mildly creepy mainstream horror that is a little too by-the-numbers. It’s decent entertainment for 81 minutes, but like the featured ghost, it will dissipate as soon as the lights go on.