‘Lights Out’ Keeps Horror Costs Low (Movie Review)

lights out thumbThere is something quite refreshing about Lights Out. Based on an effective 3-minute horror short, the film’s concept relies on a simple gimmick and seems to borrow a bit thematically from The Babadook in an effort to make a studio-friendly horror film. While there are ways this film could have gone off the rails and even some questionable logic moments, the film actually does good by its characters, with enough fuel to make this an 80-minute horror feature worth the time.



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The original short from director David F. Sandberg (who directs the feature length version as well) featured Lotta Losten (who has a brief role in this film as well) noticing the image of a creepy figure in the distance after turning off a hallway light. Turning the light back on causes the figure to disappear. Repeat this process a few times, with longer intervals in between the switches, and that short creates the exact tension needed, as it builds to a scary change involving the distance of the figure.

A film could easily lose its luster, were it to depend entirely on that use of a scare for 80 minutes, so Sandberg, producer James Wan and screenwriter Eric Heisserer add a few characters, some backstory and a novel approach to the story that I did not see coming. Rather than keep these scares random and have irritating characters not believing the claims of those being spooked, the film takes a different route.

Maria Bello stars as Sophie, a mother with real issues. She has what appears to be some sort of imaginary friend known as Diana, who does her job to scare (and harm) those caught in her “lights on, lights off” path. While we are viewers of an initial takedown in the film’s cold open, Diana has the largest effect on Sophie’s two children. Teresa Palmer’s Rebecca moved out on her own a little while back, but the young, wide-eyed Martin (Gabriel Bateman) cannot get any sleep. I’ll also mention Bret (Alexander DiPersia), Rebecca’s boyfriend, as he rounds out this cast and helps add some humanity to the film.

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Rather than go through some familiar notions of having Martin and eventually Rebecca being the only ones witnessing the terror, Lights Out makes sure Diana is a threat recognized by others early on. Even if the exact nature of this threat is not entirely clear to everyone, the film does not make them completely ignorant either. As a result, the mysterious nature of these scares manages to be addressed, while leaving room for character work.

Now Lights Out is not anywhere close to masterful when it comes to defining these characters with plenty of layers, but the film does a decent job of setting up the people we need to know and making us care. There’s a level of efficiency that plays well for this film and the amount of restraint when it comes to jump scares aids in giving us the time we need to follow these people around, before getting scared with them.

It helps that Palmer and Bello do fine work here. Palmer has fun with her role, as she balances a frightened performance with just enough of a knowing element to play well with the other cast members and not play everything entirely too seriously. Bello is in a trickier position of sorts, as her role requires some concentrated performance work that can easily move into camp territory. Lights Out does push her over the top, but the film is effective enough to have it all hang together.

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As a director, Sandberg acquits himself well enough for his feature length debut. He knows how to build tension and play well enough with the settings and locations provided. There may be a lack of flare that really sets the look of this film apart from others, but for $5 million and a reliance on practical effects, I was generally pleased to find the simplicity good for a film that doesn’t require too much investment. That is certainly most notable in the way it feels like a standalone feature that doesn’t twist its way into creating an out for potential sequels.

For a little movie that uses a creepy scare technique and some good ideas to help support it, Lights Out is quite effective. I may have some questions concerning how Diana functions, but that dares the studio to develop some kind of origin story film. I’m fine with the one I got here, as it works at providing some genuine scares and letting the audience appreciate the people involved as well. There is even the thought of just how dreadful it will be to turn the lights off yourself, when trying to sleep after seeing this film.

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1 Response to “‘Lights Out’ Keeps Horror Costs Low (Movie Review)”

  1. Brian White

    Oh wow! I did not go to this because I thought it would be cheap and stupid, but based on your recommendation I definitely want to check it out now. Thanks!