Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Date: August 19th
Watching Lights Out is like watching that old magician’s trick involving three cups and a ball. You know exactly what’s happening but that still doesn’t prevent you from falling for the trick. Director David F. Sandberg wastes no time in establishing that the jump scare is his weapon of choice. What’s surprising is how this one trick sustains the film for so long.
Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) discovers that her younger brother (Garbriel Bateman) is being haunted by the same creature that once tormented her. This “Diana” creature is somehow connected to their mentally-ill mother (Maria Bello). Basically, Diana’s a creepy badass with pointy claws who’s afraid of the light but starts carving things up when the lights go out. Got it?
Good. Because that’s pretty much all the elaboration you’re going to get from the film. Its mythology is woefully undercooked and the token gestures at exposition aren’t going to be much help. Claws, dark, choppy choppy – you get the idea.
Plotting is not where this film’s strengths lie. Sandberg’s feature adaptation of his short film is a throwback to the old-fashioned horror films that couples watched on date night. One of the characters may have mental health issues but don’t expect a Babadook style exploration of human frailty. Not when there are jump scares to be delivered.
Palmer’s charismatic presence somehow makes her threadbare character more than just a damaged rock chick with a heart of gold. Bateman’s character is straight from the “perfect child” school of casting, but Bello gives a nuanced performance as the troubled mother. The script does none of them any favours, but the actors do a pretty good job of looking bloody scared. Sometimes that’s enough.
The film’s refusal to get bogged down in pesky things like characterisation makes it a streamlined delivery system for old-fashioned scares. Lights Out starts strongly, cranks up the tension and executes the recurring jump scare tactic with some real skill.
The light/dark premise plays on our deepest childhood fears. Diana may be the actual baddie but Sandberg turns every shadow, dark corner and gaping door into a potential source of danger. In combination with his clever use of sound as a psychological weapon, this keeps the audience on edge throughout the film.
The tension does seep out of Lights Out in the latter stages. Its big bad becomes overexposed and the lack of depth gradually leaves you numb to the perils facing the characters.
Still, it has an undeniable retro charm for all its flaws, delivering some decent scares and chilling moments along the way. It’s an enjoyable popcorn muncher of a movie. If you shine too much light on its weaknesses, you’ll inevitably come away disappointed. But if you embrace it as a horror throwback, it’s a fun piece of camp entertainment.