Imagine turning your lights out only to discover a phantom silhouette shifting with menace in the darkness. When you turn them on to make sure what you see is real, the silhouette disappears. This is the premise of a 3 minute short created by David. F. Sandberg in 2013. The short film entitled Lights Out became a viral hit, and scared many a horror fan hungry for something fresh. Fast-forward to 2016, where the feature film adaptation of the suspenseful short finally giving us a back story to the creepy apparition.
Martin (Gabriel Bateman) has quite the burden to bear for a little boy. His mother Sophie (Maria Bello) suffers from mental illness, talking to empty rooms and dealing with, at times, severe depression and manic behaviour. When his father Paul (Billy Burke) tries to deal with work and his troubled wife, he comes to a surprising violent end, leaving Martin to rely on his distant half-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). Rebecca is resentful of growing up with a mentally ill mother and absent father, as a result she has closed herself off emotionally to patient boyfriend Brett (Alexander DiPersia).
Both she and Martin have experienced night terrors in the form of a ghostly apparition called Diana, leaving Martin terrified to go to sleep with the lights off. Together, the siblings must deal with their mother, past family trauma, the mystery behind their nightmares and the danger it brings in the dark.
When I initially heard a full length feature was in the works based on the short’s success, it made me cringe. The fate of a great short film stretched out into a feature can often be the demise of a story, but when I saw that James Wan, one of my favourite directors, would be one of the producers, and the Sandberg, the original writer and director of the short, would be at the helm, it put me at ease somewhat. Unfortunately, this combination couldn’t sway me to a more positive vote. My overall reaction to the film teetered on the fence between “I kinda liked it” and outright dislike. I actually expected a more out-there story instead of a slightly mushy one about a family in turmoil.
Technically speaking, there were things I really liked about the film. I enjoyed the many jump scares that normally would make my eyes roll, but here they were well placed and timed, especially when you realize the particulars of this phantom. The use of light was well done and conveyed a true sense of safety against the creature, making the darkness that much more terrifying.
Some of the performances were good too. Bateman was believable as a conflicted little kid who both loved and feared his ill mother. Bello was superb as Sophie, from the tremors in her hands to the understated anguish of someone trying to keep it together while dealing with mental illness. Even DiPersia was enjoyable to watch as the patient boyfriend.
However, I must fully admit to my bias against Teresa Palmer. Ever since Warm Bodies (which I hated), she’s rubbed me the wrong way. She hovers above a great performance, and to me, never really taps into the potential I think she has. I felt the same way here, completely bored with the character of Becca at some points and wanting to invest more with Sophie, who was under-represented in the film. I must also mention Alicia Vela-Bailey, a stunt double and dancer, who did some deliciously creepy justice to the Lights Out terror Diana. Vela-Bailey was wasted and overshadowed by the immediate connection I made to the J-horror Ringu when we learn of her back story, which was explained twice, I might add. It was nice, however, to see that Lotta Losten who played “the woman” in the original short wasn’t forgotten, with her cameo as Paul’s assistant Esther.
I would see Lights Out for the proper use of jump scares, the clever use of lighting and a great ghost/demon/phantom. It’s clear that Sandberg has talent despite my conflicted feelings about the film, so I can only wait for his next project (which will be Annabelle 2) in the hopes that things can only get better from here.