Thursday, November 10, 2016

Switch Hitters

Year: 2016
Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello
Run Time: 1 hour 21 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I missed Lights Out in theaters, but it was for medical reasons (I have photosensitive baby eyeballs) rather than a lack of interest. Expanded from a solid short film by Swedish director David F. Sandberg, Lights Out rocks an ingenious concept. You know the shadows that you see in the corner of your eye when you turn out the lights? The ones that your brain is immediately convinced are evil monsters? Well, what if those were real?

It’s a primal, elemental fear that courses with power in the short. But when it’s diluted into an admittedly tight but still much vaster 82 minutes, how does it fare?

That’s what we’re here to find out.

In Lights Out, a family begins to be tormented by a ghost who only appears in complete darkness. Given that this town seems to share an electrical grid with the Haddonfield Department of Energy, this causes a major problem. Sexy commitment-phobe Becca (Teresa Palmer) and her doting, sorta-boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) are forced to intervene when her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) stops sleeping, afraid to be alone with his mother Sophie (Maria Bello), who seems to be encouraging this ghostly tormentor, who we come to find out is named Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey).

This ignites pre-existing tensions in the family, all based around each member’s fear of being abandoned.

Because, at its heart, Lights Out kinda has a sitcom story arc.

I will say this much. Lights Out has some tremendously creative setpieces and gags that make the most of its concept: a warehouse full of creepy mannequins dotted with pools of motion-sensor light, an apartment with a blinking red neon sign out the window, and a grab bag of light sources as varied as candles, blacklights, a car’s headlamps, and even muzzle flashes from a gun. Lights Out rigorously puts its concept to the test, playing with light in ways that miraculously convert horror’s typical high key lighting into something fresh, tactile, and original.

Unfortunately, what we see when we turn out the lights is always scarier in our imagination. The ghostly Diana provides some solid frights, but she only gets one or two moments in the spotlight (quite literally) before the movie stats dripping exposition onto her like sap, gluing her to a set of increasingly finite rules and restrictions that obliterate her ineffable creepiness.

The film’s slavering eagerness to explain away its monster is its biggest weakness, gleefully contorting Diana into something mundane and explicable. It doesn’t help that, in action, she’s a resolutely corporeal being, slamming her victims back and forth like she’s auditioning for the WWE rather than continuing her reign of elegantly chilling supernatural shocks. She almost instantly loses her mystique, and while she has some jump scare juice left in her, the atmosphere has almost completely evaporated before the end of the first half hour, which clearly cares more about the family drama than the ghost anyway.

It’s like an episode of Dallas, but with more screaming.

Although it could have been much better, that doesn’t mean Lights Out ain’t a fun ride. At a brisk 82 minutes, the time just shoots by, and Sandberg is confident enough at the helm that I’m (tentatively) excited for his Annabelle 2. And Lights Out is yet another modern horror flick like Sinister or The Purge that has every opportunity to get bigger and better in the sequel, which was pretty much greenlit the millisecond it came out.

What I’d like tos ee if more scares and more sustained mystery. We pretty much get exactly what Diana’s about before were even a third of the way through our popcorn, so next time it would be nice to actually be allowed to wallow in the eeriness for a statistically significant amount of time. Lights Out is a solid debut and I hope it heralds a fabulous career, but it’s a film that’ll work best at a party, where you don’t have to pay it too much attention.

TL;DR: Lights Out is a clever horror film bogged down with too much explanation.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 702

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