Lights Out (2016)
Rated PG-13 for terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material and brief drug content
Score: 2 out of 5
Lights Out is based on a terrific and frightening short film by David F. Sandberg, who also directed this film in his feature Hollywood debut. If you can, watch that little film; it's only two and a half minutes long, and it's scarier than anything in this movie. Oddly enough given how good a job Sandberg did with that short, this film fails hardest when it's trying to scare the viewer. It's at its best when it's focusing on the domestic drama between the main characters, with the horror side being fairly mediocre and the writing riddled with plot holes, inconsistencies, and one important moment that, once I thought about it, flat-out pissed me off. Overall, in a supernatural horror landscape that, save for The Conjuring 2 and some indie efforts, has seemingly been on a downward slide for the last couple of years, calling this one of the better efforts is damning it with faint praise, especially when there are other horror films that have taken on similar subject matter with far more finesse and tact while also being scarier.
Our protagonist is Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a young woman who is estranged from her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) over the matter of Sophie seeming to be insane. By that, I don't mean "a bitch" -- she has a legitimate mental illness, spurning all efforts by her second husband and Rebecca's stepfather Paul (Sophie's first husband having run out on them) to get her into treatment and stop talking to an imaginary friend named Diana. There's just one problem, though... Diana isn't so imaginary. One night, Paul is killed by a mysterious assailant at work, one who only appears in the dark and vanishes in the light, and Sophie's young son Martin is kept up at night by that same strange figure such that he falls asleep in school the next day. When Rebecca and her boyfriend Bret arrive to pick up Martin and bring him home due to Sophie not answering her phone, they start to realize that what's wrong with Sophie is more than just an ordinary medical problem. She's being haunted by the ghost of a girl that she met during a previous stay in a psychiatric hospital, one who became obsessed with her before dying from an experimental procedure to cure her problems with photosensitivity, and who won't let death stop her from refusing to let anybody be friends with Sophie except herself.
The biggest problems here come in with the writing. The film's biggest failings come in when it gets to explaining who Diana is, and by extension, Sophie's backstory, and not just because of the usual problem of the monster getting less scary the more it's explained. We never learn what Sophie was originally institutionalized for, while Diana having a physical weakness to light does not sound like the kind of thing that a person gets sent to a psychiatric hospital for. The entire backstory involving Sophie's stay in a mental hospital could've become a source of drama, used to create ambiguity as to whether or not she's haunted as opposed to just ill in the head, something that The Babadook did to excellent effect. Instead, it comes off as a lazy attempt to exploit an old horror movie trope, the association of asylums and their inhabitants with evil, without even trying to explore it, and the problematic elements of it came to the forefront during the climax. Without spoiling anything, if you have either battled mental illnesses or have friends or relatives who have, then I'd be hard-pressed to see you appreciating how this film ends, especially given that, for so much of its runtime, it seems like a far more thoughtful film than that. At the very least (and this may be minor spoilers), the ending should've been a lot more bittersweet than it was presented as. Looking back, I am not surprised to see that this film's writer, Eric Heisserer, also wrote the execrable remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, given that the writing here has many of the same problems with plot holes and raising interesting ideas that were never fully explored.
Heisserer is not entirely to blame for this film's problems, however, because the direction, while acceptable, never rises above that level. David Sandberg does a good job recreating his short film on a bigger budget in the opening, including having the actress from the short play a role, getting things going on the right foot. After that, however, he seems to be stuck on autopilot for most of the movie, with most of the scary moments and set pieces being recycled from other films. I saw most of the scares coming, and while they did get me to bounce out of my seat, none of them were really special. Furthermore, the "rules" established for Diana are inconsistent. We're shown that she vanishes when light is shined on her, yet in one scene, we hear her knocking on a door from a well-lit hallway, raising the question of how she got there. (One minor change that could've closed this plot hole: have Rebecca open the door to find the hallway lights turn off, only to see them come back on a second or two later.) Furthermore, the film can't seem to decide if Diana vanishes in the light or if she's burned by it. While it's implied that a UV blacklight that can illuminate Diana without causing her to disappear can also burn her, we later also see normal flashlights burning her. Inconsistency on just how the monster is supposed to work takes some of the punch out of the scares.
I will credit Sandberg for one thing, though: while the actual scares are lacking here, he does a very good job creating atmosphere, using sound and mood to great effect and amplifying the power of moments that shouldn't have been as scary as they were. There's always a hum in the air in this movie, and every shadowy corner starts to look like a place where Diana can strike from. While he's unpolished, I can definitely see Sandberg improving with time and becoming a real talent. This film's strongest suit, however, was the characters, particularly Sophie. Maria Bello is fantastic in this film, playing a woman who can be read as either mentally ill or stuck in a dangerously controlling friendship with Diana. Her presence elevates the other characters in this film through their interactions with her, particularly Rebecca. While Teresa Palmer's performance is merely passable otherwise, in her interactions with Bello's Sophie she manages to create a strong protagonist, one who's fed up with all the crap that she receives from Sophie and her refusal to seek treatment, and now fears that her mother is going to ruin her brother Martin's life without their stepdad Paul to keep a handle on her. One scene in particular between the two of them, where we see just how thoroughly Diana has taken over Sophie's life, is both chilling and heartbreaking, and one great line towards the end delivered more characterization and chills than ten minutes' worth of infodumps. Outside of Bello and Palmer, however, most of the cast didn't really register with me one way or the other. The boy who plays Martin, Gabriel Bateman, felt especially weak, and was definitely one of the lesser kid actors I've seen in movies.
The Bottom Line:
This is a movie that needed more time on the script. Without the ending and some other related elements that rubbed me the wrong way, this could've been a solid, if uneven, film and a recommendation. The parts that worked, really worked. As it is, though, that ending had me shaking my head and made this a real disappointment. There are much better movies out there with similar stories. Only see this if you really want to see a new horror flick in theaters.