Light goes off. The shadow of a monster appears in the gloom. Light goes on. Monster disappears. It's a simple, if effective horror concept, and one that most people encountered in 2013's viral short horror film Lights Out. I went into the full-length feature adaptation of this film wondering whether this simple scare would hold up for a whole 81 minute runtime — and came out pleasantly surprised.
Lights Out was brought to the big screen with the help of James Wan, and those familiar with Wan's work will see a similar style in first-time director David Sandberg's film. It begins with a fast-paced, nail-biting introduction to the threat. An unknown being stalks a man working late in a creepy warehouse filled with mannequins, presumably because mannequins are spooky.
Early on we get a cameo from Lotta Losten, Sandberg's wife and the actor in the original short film. She plays a very familiar role for fans of the first film — indeed, it is her fingers on the light switch that introduce the light-fearing monster at the centre of Lights Out. For those who somehow haven't seen the original short, you can watch it, and Lotta, here:
Although this early scene is a close recreation of the original short, or at least the first part of it, the familiarity ends there. Light is used creatively throughout the entirety of the film, keeping the concept mostly fresh. This begins in the very first scene, where the warehouse's downlights create little islands of light that provide safety from the creature that lurks in the dark.
After a good few minutes of seeing the evil spirit in action, Lights Out jumps right into its main character setup. We meet a family broken by the disappearance of one father, the death of another and the mental illness of Sophie, a single mother left behind to raise her young son Martin. We also meet her rebellious daughter Rebecca, now living away from her mother in a small apartment. The dingy living space sits above a tattoo parlour, lit by a giant neon sign that buzzes on and off through the night. You really don't have to wonder too long about why that's there.
Rebecca's characterisation is a little forced early on, shoved in your face by a scene in which she asserts her independence by telling her well-meaning not-quite-boyfriend Bret that he isn't allowed to stay the night. It's pushed further by the design of her apartment — liberally sprinkled with death metal posters and bongs. However as she reconnects with her estranged family after being called into her brother's school to pick him up when their mother can't be contacted, Rebecca starts to come into her own.
With a lean hour and twenty minutes to work with, Lights Out doesn't mess around. This is likely one of the factors that makes it work in all the places it shouldn't have. It doesn't waste time with false alarms, skepticism and disbelief — the moment Martin tells his big sister about his mum's 'friend', she takes action.
This element is interesting for a horror movie — usually children are the ones with the demonic invisible friend, but this time the mother is the one who has bonded with a dark power and generally can't be trusted. It places a certain amount of vulnerability on her children. The film even goes so far as to have a character lay out the mother's legal rights as Martin's guardian, telling Rebecca that she can't just take him away from a supposedly imaginary danger. Instead, they're at the mercy of their mother and her 'friend', Diana.
Aside from this twist on the usual cliché, Lights Out does play into a lot of common horror tropes. One whole scene of the film has Martin, Rebecca and her boyfriend Bret exploring the darkened house for information. While Rebecca finds numerous table lamps with bulbs taken out and cords cut, none of them seem to try the wall switches even once. You'd think that out of every horror movie that fails this trope, this would be the one where the characters would really want to make sure that every light was on.
On the more refreshing side, Rebecca discovers the truth behind Diana surprisingly early on in the film. Thankfully it doesn't lean on the horror genre's habit of throwing all the exposition in the last five minutes of the film. Said backstory is still a little cliché however, and something that the movie almost could have done without, though it does underline Sophie's connection with Diana. This history leads to a truly creepy scene where the mother well-meaningly attempts to 'introduce' her son to her otherworldly friend.
The highlight of this movie was by far its abundant and effective scares. By the end, I was amazed by all the different ways that Sandberg played with light and dark, especially in places you wouldn't immediately expect. Some of the best scares come surprisingly early on, in the scenes where Sandberg allows time to let the tension build before throwing you right into the scare.
Lights Out culminates in one long, tense night, which begins with a montage of Martin, Rebecca and Bret setting up the house for what is essentially the creepiest sleepover ever. They fill the house with lights, candles and emergency torches, as they should have done way earlier on in the film. Of course, Diana always finds a way to turn the lights out, and the trio struggle to survive into the morning so that they can help their mother be free of Diana.
Horror movies often start to lose their terrifying tension in two ways — firstly, when people start dying, and secondly, when the police show up. Surprisingly, Lights Out doesn't fall victim to either of these moments, and the terror only escalates through the last twenty minutes of the film.
Overall, Lights Out manages to work where all signs say it shouldn't have. All the actors are stellar in their roles (where the opposite can often be the death of otherwise promising horror films) with Teresa Palmer the standout as Rebecca, the reluctant hero leading her family through a mess her mother had dragged them into. The sound design is also top notch — though the jump scares do tend to lean a little too heavily on audio stings, the rest of the soundtrack builds tension, and Diana's whispering voice is just creepy enough without being camp.
While it falls into some of the common traps of horror filmmaking, Lights Out is a fast-paced, oddly effective and scary little film that'll have you leaving all the lights on in your house. With his first feature, director David Sandberg shows a lot of promise as a horror director, and I can't wait to see what he puts out next. Hell, as bad as horror sequels so often are, I still want to see a Lights Out 2 someday.