For many, a fear of the dark trumps all other possible phobias. Maybe it’s the unknown that gets the hairs standing up on the back of your neck, or the lack of clear perception, but many a county fair has built quite a bank account out of scaring patrons with haunted attractions that are really nothing more than lightless areas filled with things that go “BOO!” in the midst of the fun. Lights Out, the new film from producer James Wan, walks a fine line between mundane and masterful. It takes a typical circumstance–a creature that can only be seen in the dark–and twists the convention into something beyond scary.
When her stepfather dies mysteriously, young Rebecca (a terrific Teresa Palmer) starts to worry about the safety of her stepbrother Martin (Gabriel Bateman). He’s become restless and unsettled, claiming that the spirit of someone named “Diana” is after him. Our heroine knows this name. She’s had her own run-ins with what turns out to be the “imaginary” friend–or is that enemy?–of her psychotic and previously institutionalized mother Sophie (Maria Bello). She realizes the threat. So, with her boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) in tow, it’s humans vs. the haunting for dominion over the household, and control of the dark.
There are two really amazing things that make Lights Out much better than your average PG-13 fright fest. The first is the story set-up, using broken homes, familial dysfunction, and closely kept secrets as the reason we are wandering through this particularly potent bit of paranormal Hell. The other is Swedish director David F. Sandberg, who managed to find a way to transform his viral short (which itself was enough to cause nightmares) into a full length horror show. Lights Out, the feature, is a perfect example of how a great idea can be stretched into an equally amazing movie.
The hook here is that we come to care for these characters. The situation makes sense, and when it starts to de-evolve into supernatural madness, we want to see payback and comeuppance. We worry for Rebecca and her stepbrother and hope that the horrible thing stalking the dark will be defeated (or at the very least, paused until the mandatory sequel steps in to revive it). Of course, none of this would work without someone skilled behind the lens, and leave it to producer James Wan, the current master of post-modern horror, to find a satisfactory student in Sandberg.
The approach here is Dread 101. Give us a set-up. Show it in action. Then milk it until you manage to turn anticipation into angst. Indeed, every time we come upon Diana, we know what to expect. What Sandberg does to change up the challenge is why Lights Out works so well. Yes, we are dealing with jump scares and quiet-LOUD moments in spades, but with a firm foundation in family and personal strife, Lights Out loses none of its edge. Instead, it uses the genre cliches and demands to craft a near-classic.
Yes, there are a few leaps in logic here (though few go to a horror film to see rationality on display) and there is an unnecessary need to over-explain Diana and why she is doing what she’s doing, but just like the lapses in any narrative, the good here outweighs the very minor missteps. The acting is excellent across the board, and Sandberg even gives fans of his short film a clever shout out in the prologue (you’ll probably recognize one of the actresses almost immediately). While some may see it as too simplistic, Lights Out succeeds because it does something few contemporary horror films manage–it’s frightening. Like sleep with the lights on frightening. Like giving you second thoughts about going in that dark basement frightening.