Lights Out

Posted by Joel Copling on July 22, 2016

The short film that provided the basis for "Lights Out" was an effective thing, indeed. At less than three minutes, it created a truly tense atmosphere, featured a very simple and well-executed idea, and ended with an expertly devised stinger that earned the potential gasp/shriek/expletive of shock from the viewer. That idea, by the way, was a corker at only two minutes, and it's still a corker at just more than an hour with this feature adaptation: When a light is off, some silhouetted shadow is visible as blacker than the darkness around it (and when within shade cast against light behind it), and when that light is on, it has disappeared. Given all the reasons to be afraid of the dark (a fear fed quite well by the best horror films), here is a new one: a being that only resides in all forms of darkness.

The longer film, which has been adapted for the screen by Eric Heisserer and helmed by the short's filmmaker David F. Sandberg, must of course expand upon this idea, except it's uncertain whether such an idea needed this much expansion. There are two films at war with each other here, and both are slightly underwhelming. They don't start that way, though. The more prominent half of the film has only part of something to do with the threat. It involves a family grieving the losses of both of their fathers (one the biological father of the elder child in the family, the other her stepfather and the biological father of the younger child, a son). We'll get to the matter of the first father, who abandoned his family, in a moment, but just keep that mind.

The other father, Paul (Billy Burke), is a victim of the entity confined to that darkness, set upon in an opening scene that puts to shame every other scare sequence that follows it: He's in a warehouse whose light fixtures are powered by motion sensors, devices that are crucial to the kind of tension in which Sandberg is dabbling. His wife Sophie (Maria Bello) has been in and out of mental institutions since a childhood diagnosis of depression, and his sudden death at the hands of the mysterious being has led to an estrangement from her daughter of a previous marriage, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). When Sophie and Paul's son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) struggles at school with a lack of sleep, Rebecca and her sort-of boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) intervene--and, of course, encounter that same being.

The film's formula then becomes a sort of repetitious mantra that constantly establishes and reiterates the internal rules of this being. They don't always make sense, either: Apparently, the being's mass also disappears when light is shone (such as a notebook that falls from hands previously holding it), yet it is able to etch its name into the wooden floor of Rebecca's apartment. The use of a blacklight is clever, but even a general knowledge of how the device works is a spoiler for the solution of how to get rid of it. Sandberg, cinematographer Marc Spicer, and editors Michel Aller and Kirk M. Morri are skilled at devising these sequences, even when a logical approach is shaky, but nothing beats the aforementioned, riveting opener. As for performances, Bateman is a natural onscreen, capturing well a troubled kid in a tough childhood and outdoing everyone else.

But this film doesn't merely want to be a scream factory. It has higher ambitions -- troubling ones. I hesitate to reveal too much, but it partly has to do with the reasons behind that first father's abandonment of his wife and daughter: "Lights Out" fancies itself a high-minded rumination on clinical depression and the wake of devastation it leaves. It's far too much for a film as otherwise streamlined as this can handle. It's both critical and off-putting suggesting that an ultimate self-sacrifice is the only avenue down which a person who suffers from the condition can go. The final three minutes in particular is an egregious and off-putting bow tied to a troublesome motion picture that bites off way more than it can chew. There's expanding upon a premise, and then there's cold, unforgiving manipulation. This denouement isn't challenging -- it's downright portentous.

Film Information

Teresa Palmer (Rebecca), Gabriel Bateman (Martin), Alexander DiPersia (Bret), Maria Bello (Sophie), Billy Burke (Paul), Alicia Vela-Bailey (Diana), Andi Osho (Emma).

Directed by David F. Sandberg and written by Eric Heisserer, based on the short film directed and written by Sandberg.

Rated PG-13 (terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, thematic material, brief drug content).

81 minutes.

Released on July 22, 2016.