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Lights Out: Aimlessly Adrift Horror Flick Lacks Substance

By  · Published on July 22nd, 2016

The short that inspired it packs more frights into its 3+ minutes of running time.

At the root of all fears lies the dread of the unknown that hides and bides its time in the dark. Exploiting this ground zero human anxiety, David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out strips the bells and whistles from a basic notion and turns darkness itself –or an entity empowered by it– into a relentless villain. Perhaps because its premise is too simple to a fault, the scribe Eric Heisserer, working off of an identically-titled 2013 short film by Sandberg, stuffs an unconvincing “troubled child” back-story beneath the film’s intriguing yet thin shell. The result is neither effectively frightening nor persuasive. The feature-length Lights Out is your typical below-average horror flick in a lot of ways: some successful jump scares, an undercooked script, and shaky dialogue you’re occasionally willing to forgive in exchange of competent direction and random moments of comic relief.

The adequately unsettling opening introduces us to the bloodcurdling sinister force that can only strike and be seen in the dark, while she murders a man in a bone-chilling warehouse-type locale. Years later, we follow his surviving wife Sophie (Mario Bello) suffering from a form of mental illness, their distressed young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who lives with Sophie and their daughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer): a rebellious 20-something with severe romantic commitment issues and a voluntary distance from her mother. It is when Martin realizes his mom’s uncanny habit of talking to an imaginary being in their sufficiently eerie house (which Sophie keeps pitch black regularly) that Rebecca gets back in touch with her family to protect her brother. Following her lead is her desperately needy puppy dog boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), who wants nothing more than a stable relationship with Rebecca and a drawer in her bedroom dresser as a symbol of their steadiness.

At first, Rebecca takes Martin to her place despite her mother’s protests, but drags the evil entity along with her into her tiny apartment. This leaves them only one option: move in with Sophie (who seems to be emotionally controlled by the ghoul), help her regain her mental strength and beat the unfriendly poltergeist in her own territory. From this point on, Lights Out takes a brief stylish spin visually and rhythmically. The biggest part of the praise belongs to its smart use of opportune light sources that protect the characters throughout the story. As Rebecca, Martin and Bret battle darkness and fight for little glimmers of light, some genuinely unexpected sources of illumination land various scenes and make a remarkably relieving impact. Lights Out produces serious laughs along the way too (some, troublingly unintentional when characters inexplicably head towards the basement or a dark corner they should clearly avoid).

But the premise (and all the related scares and gags) sadly wears thin fast and exposes the film’s frustrating shakiness at various turns. For starters, it’s never clear why the spirit follows Rebecca into her apartment when her source of power comes from Sophie primarily. Equally implausible is the conflict between Rebecca and Sophie when they face off over Martin’s custody. Lights Out doesn’t really spend any time investing in Rebecca’s affection for Martin, so her “overly protective sister” act never quite gels within the second act. Perhaps most awkward is the origin tale of the ghost that haunts the family. We are in The Ring territory here somewhat with a story of a child that suffered a horrible death once upon a time. But while The Ring emotionally devastates with traumatizing details of its narrative, Lights Out irritates with an overarching futility. Often, I found myself wondering why I should care about any of the characters that regularly seem adrift in a mostly purposeless film.

In addition to its sophisticated cinematography by Marc Spicer, Lights Out’s greatest draw is Mario Bello’s moving performance as a struggling mother who wants better for her children than she’s capable of providing. Though unlike the stellar short that inspired it, there isn’t sadly a lot of substance in this generally aimless film that doesn’t justify its feature-length running time. It will be a huge relief when the lights come on and put an end to your growing indifference and boredom.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.