The gutsiest people out there will agree that pitch-black darkness is unsettling, for there is nothing more frightening than the conjurings of your mind, pun definitely intended. Director David Sandberg knows this, and in Lights Out, uses it to create some hair-raising sequences in the dark. The malevolent spirit in the film is a creature of blackness, literally and metaphorically, and thrives in the shadows. Belonging to the family suffering from its hateful intent is young Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who can only sleep when guarded by the glow of a torchlight. The evil spirit, Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), is put off more by torches and candles than by crosses and hymns. In one scene, a car’s headlights do the trick.
Lights Out is the feature film version of the award-winning eponymous short film made by the same director, three years ago. So, when James Wan agreed to produce the film, Sandberg’s challenge was to turn his short film concept into a feature film story; to add flesh to the bare bones of the attractive concept. He utilises some of the running time (90 minutes) to tell the back story of how Diana came to be. You see, she suffered from some sort of photophobia (as explanation for her aversion to light), and is a friend of Martin’s mother, Sophie (the excellent Maria Bello), at a mental institution. After her death, she has come to cling to Sophie, and refuses to let her have any relationship that threatens theirs. That’s why Sophie cannot have a husband for too long; the first scene with Martin’s father is essentially a Hollywood version of the short film. The problem with having such a back story though is that it more or less humanises the evil spirit, and the detail removes the murkiness that is key to making Diana unpredictable, and consequently, fearful. That’s why, the Diana we see after the back story doesn’t ever feel too intimidating.
Director: David Sandberg
Cast: Maria Bello, Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman
Storyline: Two siblings need to rescue their mother from the evil spirit that’s controlling her
Not much time is taken to convey the gloom of the setting as, say, in The Babadook, which is also about a single mother and her young son being tormented by an evil spirit. Hence, Lights Out ends up working more as a mish-mash of some decent jump scares. I quite enjoyed how scarily athletic Diana is, which is in stark contrast to the lumbering, crawling creatures we’re usually exposed to in horror films. Give Diana some darkness, and she’ll have no problem sprinting and leaping.
Perhaps if they hadn’t embodied Diana so and given her a back story, it might have been interesting to explore the possibility of her simply being a figment of Sophie’s disturbed mind, as her daughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), seems to think for a long time. That’s why Rebecca has moved out of the household and that’s why she encourages Martin to get out while he’s still not irrevocably damaged. But her perceptive boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) sees quite early that Rebecca’s wounds run deep: “Are you doing this to help him… or hurt her?” Lights Out, I thought, could have worked better as a psychological thriller, but in its present form, there isn’t too much emotional resonance in its storytelling, and it doesn’t ever rise beyond being a generic horror film with some effective jump scares centred on a clever premise; the predictable end doesn’t help matters too. What the film does do though is make power cuts seem all the more alarming and undesirable. That sentiment surely holds a bit of value where we live?
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