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Review: Lights Out (2016)

Lights Out (2016)

Directed by: David F. Sandberg

Premise: A young woman (Theresa Palmer) who is estranged from her family returns home when her stepfather dies under mysterious circumstances. She discovers that her mother and half-brother are haunted by a violent specter that is linked to the mother’s mental illness.

What Works: Haunted house movies offer an opportunity for filmmakers to show off their skills and Lights Out is an impressive debut feature from director David F. Sandberg. A lot of filmmaking is about the use of light and shadow and Lights Out does this very well. In the clever premise of the story, a family is haunted by a supernatural creature that can only exist in the dark and is overpowered by light. That requires the characters to illuminate themselves and their surroundings and the filmmakers effectively use shadows to capitalize upon the audience’s fear of the dark. That’s amplified by some creative framing. The action is staged and photographed in a way that creates empty space around the characters, inviting the audience to anticipate what terrible thing might pop out of the darkness. The filmmakers also use sound pretty well. This is a jump scare movie and the filmmakers apply crashes and stingers with appropriate restraint but more importantly they know when to use silence. The skill with which Lights Out has been crafted results in a movie that is a lot of fun and Lights Out has the same appeal as a haunted house attraction. This is the kind of horror picture that frightens but also delights in the way that it gives the audience a good clean scare. Lights Out also impresses in how streamlined it is. The movie is partly a mystery as the brother and sister must figure out what is happening to their family but Lights Out doesn’t get bogged down in exposition. It makes internal sense without overelaborate rules about how to vanquish the evil spirits. Despite its brief running time of eighty-one minutes, Lights Out is also able to inject some depth into its characters. The family has a complicated history; the father left years ago, causing a rift between the daughter and her mother and half-brother which they have to overcome in order to survive. Actors Theresa Palmer and Gabriel Bateman take the material seriously and ground the movie in reality. Horror films can be metaphors of human issues and Lights Out applies some intelligence to the haunting that adds meaning to the story. The mother, played extremely well by Maria Bello, suffers from mental illness and the supernatural threat of this movie can be read as a family breaking free from an abusive spouse or as a projection of the mother’s condition.

What Doesn’t: James Wan is credited as a producer on Lights Out and this film is consistent with the numerous supernatural horror films that Wan has participated in such as The Conjuring and Insidious movies. There’s not very much about Lights Out that distinguishes this film from its competition. What’s in the film is well executed but a lot of Lights Out consists of things we have seen before and there are a number of clichés such as going into the basement with a faulty flashlight. The relationships among the family members of Lights Out are interesting but the banter between the sister and her considerably younger brother is overwritten. Their exchanges are too clever and as a result they feel artificial. The quality of the visual effects in Lights Out varies. The physical effects look great and Lights Out sports some especially scary makeup work on the supernatural creature. However, the digital effects aren’t always as convincing. The dark lighting scheme of the movie generally conceals the limits of the digital effects but the shadowy silhouette of the ghost occasionally appears two dimensional like a cartoon character in the physical world. 

Bottom Line: Lights Out is a fun supernatural horror picture. It’s not an especially memorable movie and it is firmly within the realm of PG-13 horror but this is an efficient and enjoyable exercise in gotcha scares.

Episode: #605 (July 31, 2016)