The dearth of good blockbusters this summer has left the cinematic landscape wide open for smaller films to rise to the top—call it the Summer of the Sleeper Hit. Movies like The Shallows, The Purge: Election Year, and Lights Out have all done well in a wide-open market, and The Conjuring 2 has rather quietly become one of the most successful movies of the summer. Had Star Trek Beyond opened bigger, Lights Out would have passed by unnoticed, but as audiences are getting pickier about their blockbuster fare, an original movie with no pedigree, like Lights Out, suddenly looks more interesting than a big-brand blockbuster. And Lights Out, like The Shallows before it, is a pretty solid movie that deserves the notice.
Lights Out, from first-time features director David F. Sandberg, is not breaking new ground as a horror movie. Horror connoisseurs will probably not be as taken with it as the casual viewer. But if you’re into a decently scary movie that mines fright from well-executed, if familiar, jump scares and atmospherics, then Lights Out is the movie for you. It also works as an allegory for depression—not as keenly felt or sharply done as the way The Babadook dealt with grief, but this is a horror movie with a little more meat on its bones than just freaking you the f*ck out.
First off, Lights Out is only eighty-one minutes long. Like The Shallows, this is a movie that knows not to overstay its welcome. (I’m making a lot of comparisons because Lights Out reminds me a lot of The Shallows.) And secondly, Sandberg uses the “lights off” gimmick with style, finding different ways and light sources to keep repeating the same basic jump scare: When the lights are on, you can’t see her, but when they go off, the darkness ghoul appears.
The opening scene alone is worth the price of admission. Billy Burke, star of TV’s best animal-apocalypse, drama, Zoo, works in a mannequin factory, so you know immediately someone is going to die. Everyone knows that mannequins aren’t made, they’re delivered fully-formed straight from hell, and the “mannequin factories” are merely the portals through which they pass between nightmare realms. If you ever see a mannequin factory and your friend says, “Hey let’s go in there,” don’t—the only thing made inside mannequin factories is gruesome death. So anyway, Bella’s dad and the mannequin factory introduce us to our hell-hag, Diana. She’s an appropriately creepy Grudge-type ghost, who, because of a condition when alive, can only be harmed by the light (shades of The Others).
The heroine of the piece is Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who is estranged from her mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) after her father’s death years before. Rebecca gets drawn into the story by her younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman, American Gothic), who reveals he can’t sleep because Sophie keeps talking to her imaginary friend, Diana. Rebecca, who also “knew” Diana as a child, decides to solve this Diana sh*t once and for all, and the showdown is well-executed “escape from the haunted mansion” horror piece.
The depression allegory is not graceful. Diana and Sophie knew each other as teens in a mental institution, where Something Bad Happened—doesn’t it always?—and now Ghoul-Diana doesn’t want her old friend to be healthy and so destroys anything, or anyone, that might help Sophie manage her depression. What makes The Babadook special is that it perfectly balances on the line of whether or not The Babadook is a real presence or if it’s just how a child processes his mother’s unmanageable grief, but Lights Out overtly connects Diana and Sophie’s depression in a way that makes it impossible to separate them. This renders the ending a little wobbly because the conclusion the movie comes to is awfully bleak and troubling in its implications.
Still, Lights Out is effective horror that makes the most of its “afraid of the dark” gimmick. The thematic elements mostly work, and give the actors something to do beyond varying ways to express fear. Bello and Palmer are great, and Bateman turns out to be a terrific horror movie kid, achieving fear without precociousness. Often the kids in horror movies make you long to stuff them down a well for their stupidity and blatant disregard for theirs or anyone else’s lives, but Martin is an A+ horror kid who puts some thought into not dying or getting anyone killed. Lights Out works because its ghost is actually scary, not because the characters are too stupid to live. That, and the opening scene, make it worth watching.
Attached - Teresa Palmer in San Diego for Comic-Con last week.