Darkness is terrifying, that’s what the initial short of Lights Out tapped into. The fear of what lies in the blackness the moment we turn off that switch for the night. The short works because it’s so simplistic, just an unknown being approaching closer and closer as a woman flicks the switch. No story, just a scare. This 80 minute adaptation is at its best when it can be those unsettling moments of a shadowy figure. At its worst, it can be an idiot plot of bulbs flickering out at inopportune times and plot twists for something we figured out a while ago. Somewhere in the middle is a genuinely eerie manifestation of mental illness reeking havoc on a broken family.
There is a push and pull with Lights Out of being another run of the mill Blumhouse-esque production. It follows the beats of an Insidious or Sinister where the motivation behind why the evil spirit/ghost/paranormal is doing its haunting must be uncovered. Given a name and a makeover from the short, long nailed and foreboding eyed Diana has imprinted on unstable Sophie (Maria Bello) and attack her young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) and his half sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). Compared though to those other movies, it’s very easy to come by information about Diane as it’s neatly boxed up in Sophie’s house. Because there’s little mystery to unravel, her backstory is repeated multiple times to whoever is entering the scene next. I would have prefered less time spent on her history and more of an expansion between the family dynamic or even our hero Rebecca that I can only assume pays for her nice Highland Park apartment with wishes because she seems to have no job. With such a small cast, the only other major character being Rebecca’s almost boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), there’s little opportunity for kills or any major peril which is why it fills its time with explanations we don’t need.
Even with weak relationships, the allegory of mental illness feels fleshed out enough to give some credence to Diana. Sophie is a manic depressive off her meds which is what opens the door for this evil to creep in. I’m impressed of the choice to meld the destructiveness of an unmonitored disorder with a Ring like demonic child. The morality tale is the importance of addressing these types of issues rather than running away which was Rebecca’s tactic. The ending takes a rough turn as a bit more bleak hard out for that metaphor than I had expected. Bello does a great job of making Sophie not a stereotype of a crazy person but rather a somewhat functional mother who doesn’t completely realize the harm she’s causing her children. The film makes a nod to its Mommie Dearest roots but tries to steer clear of the melodrama.
The film climaxes too neatly when you figure out this is all going down in a single night at the mother’s house and the best they can do is keep the electricity on. It feels like cop out and at the same time there’s missed opportunities for good scares when the opening introduces mannequins or as Leslie Jones would say “a room full of nightmares” but proceeds to be purely background aesthetic. It’s sadly anticlimactic when Diana has been so promising up until then. Maybe I’m asking too much because the appeal is the single, ghoulish woman and the darkness she thrives amongst. As a first feature for director David F. Sandberg, he presents great command of the atmosphere and lighting for decent scares and has made a PG-13 horror movie that’s not schlocky garbage. Lights Out may not shine the brightest but enough to make me want to move into a lamp store.