It might seem a little silly, but we all fear the dark on some level; whether its a lifetime of horror films or a subconscious hangover from childhood, pitch dark is an inherently unsettling thing to find yourself in - and David F. Sandberg's movie Lights Out aims to hammer home exactly why we should all fear the dark.
The film introduces us to attractive 20-something Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DePersia); having left home at a young age, Rebecca is a fiercely independent woman who chooses to distance herself from her mum Sophie (Maria Bello) following the death of her father. Several years down the track and Sophie has remarried and had another child, Martin (Gabriel Bateman). However, when Sophie's current husband is also killed and she slides back into a deep, dark depressive state, Rebecca begins to fear that the grief her mother feels is somehow manifesting itself into something ethereal and threatening.
The ghostly presence (named 'Diana) that haunts Sophie is stalking Rebecca, Martin and Bret, striking from the shadows and the darkness. Diana can't step out into direct light, meaning that the trio must outwit and outrun the dark if they're going to defeat Diana and save Sophie from herself.
Lights Out is actually adapted from Sandberg's own 2013 short film of the same name - now armed with a larger budget, Sandberg has crafted an impressive directorial debut filled with some genuine frights and chilling suspense. The character work is good too, especially with Palmer and Bello's mother/daughter characters. Palmer is a really great lead but its Bello who probably gives the standout performance as the troubled shut-away mum.
The pacing is a little slow at times, even though the film only runs for 84 minutes. The film also falls victim to some really tired horror tropes, chief among which are two of my least favourite - lights that flicker for no reason whatsoever and doors that jam on both sides for no reason whatsoever. I mean, does the ghoul have some kind of special skeleton key that can magically lock any and every door in every house?
Plus, the internal logic fails on more than one occasion - one scene sees Rebecca open a door after hearing a mysterious knock, only to find that the hallway lights on the other side are already on. Uhh...how does that work? Plus, how hard is it to open some damn curtains? Are there really only two candles in the whole house, even after you know how the demon works? C'mon people, failure to prepare and all that!
Now, I feel like it's time to address the elephant in the room - the ending. The film is clearly dealing with some heavy stuff by outright stating that Diana is a supernatural presence fuelled by depression. This means that the film ends up wrangling with some pretty heavy themes, like grief and suicide. Without spoiling anything, Lights Out ends up falling victim to its own internal logic and the script paints the characters into a corner from which there is only one route of escape. It's a concluding message that didn't sit right with me on a personal level, and it's worrying that people might walk away from the film with the wrong idea. If you want to see this idea explored better, watch (or rewatch) The Babadook instead.
However, discarding this perplexing and troubling conclusion, all told the film is really well-crafted and genuinely scary, especially for an M-rated movie. The scene where Rebecca first sees Diana in her apartment is pure nightmare fuel, complete a vivid red neon light outside her bedroom window flickering on and off and the ghoulish presence rapidly drawing closer. Similarly, the scene where Rebecca and Martin find themselves trapped in the basement is well-staged.
The Verdict: 6/10
It might sound like I'm giving Lights Out a hard time, but it really is a genuinely chilling horror film - in fits and bursts. Three or four scenes will scare the bejeezus out of you, but others are little too contrived or clichéd to excuse. The acting is pretty good though, particularly from Palmer and Bello.
Lights Out is in cinemas across Australia now