A cheap imitation of an original idea.
It feels sad to say that the same director of the short film Lights Out (2013) has put his name to this year’s feature length release. The original spark that the first boasted has well and truly being snuffed, leaving only a few saving graces in place. Trivialised by a weak back story, less-than-average acting, and a reliance on cheap jump scares – it really is a case of no like-y, no light-y.
When Martin’s (Gabriel Bateman) father is killed under dark circumstances and his mother’s (Maria Bello) illness increases in severity, a strange creature that lives in the shadows begins to plague the family. What Martin first justifies as a nightmare soon turns into terrifying reality when his sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) recognises the being named ‘Diana’ (Alicia Vela-Bailey) from her past – and they decide to get to the bottom of her existence. Similar to The Babadook, mental health runs as main theme throughout the film, though how successfully is a point up for question.
Horror films aren’t always meant to be ground-breaking; but something this painfully average shouldn’t be allowed on screen at all. Reliant on tropes and stereotypes down to its dying breath, Lights Out should have stayed as the scary and successful short that the name is affiliated with. There was no need to make a longer story that adds nothing but filler between already established quality moments; especially if said filler equates to poorly strung together explanations for ‘Diana’. The monster’s scariness is derived from being unseen, unknown – she is the intangible fear of the dark that we all recognise and have experienced – and this is taken away during the hour and ten minutes of unnecessary screen time. A lacklustre dive into her background provides nothing but the knowledge ‘she’s evil,’ and that ‘she’s sensitive to light,’ which just isn’t enough to cause any spine tingles when it comes to fear. Really inventive, imaginative stuff there. Almost couldn’t have guessed it myself.
Treading down the well-worn genre path of experimental therapy in run down mental institutions, Daniel Sandberg doesn’t bring anything exciting to his creature. What’s worse is that in making Diana, a trope of ‘mentally ill = dangerous’ completely undermines her manifestation as Sophie’s depression – especially in light of the awful ending, which for the sake of spoilers, I will skirt around. Let’s just say it definitely was an ill-thought out decision when considering battling depression, grief, and other mental health problems, and is probably the very last thing that should be coming out of a film that has decided to explore these themes. Unlike The Babadook, it feels as if Sandberg has hopped onto a bandwagon and is milking Lights Out for all the popular points it can get, without taking on the responsibility of good story telling and an interesting narrative that extends beyond ‘a thing that goes bump in the night’.
What’s even more damning is the actors playing the supporting roles consistently take you out of the moment, so it’s more laughable than terrifying – with Gabriel Bateman’s over-sincerity a real grinding point throughout. Palmer and Alexander DiPersia, playing boyfriend Bret, held their own in the piece which was fortunate; with Rebecca providing an interesting character that grew and retained interest. Bret was not so lucky in the writing process – coming across as a stupid love-sick boy that was as predictable as he was boring. He did however provide some comedy moments, which I won’t take away from him. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not in this context.
Diana – in spite of having the most ridiculous name – was made up well. There were some glinting moments of real scariness that sprouted from Alicia Vela-Bailey’s portrayal, which was animalistic and raw. The cat-like reflective eyes and feral movements all worked in favour for a real spooky film – but this was almost undone by showing too much of the character as the film went on. Luckily it was pulled back before it became a victim of ignoring the ‘less is more’ rule, but it wouldn’t have hurt to play with the dark more, as being so unsure of what we could be looking at was one of the saving graces to the tense atmosphere. We never actually need to see a face, or skin, or anything other than the stark silhouette and opalescent eyes. Use what you already have!
Overall, Lights Out was a disappointment. Building from a great concept that was bone-chillingly scary, Sandberg sold out his idea for a Hollywood cliche, and one that stood for all the wrong messages. Mental health was played with in the most wrong of ways, casting was a mess, and the very best moments of 2013’s standout piece were exploited in the first five minutes. The potential this movie had was staggering, and it’s safe to say it hasn’t lived up to it, which is an awful shame. With minimal pros against a whole lot of cons, the lights would truly be better left out.
Lights Out (2016), directed by David F.Sandberg, is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Certificate 15.