LAFF 2016 Review: LIGHTS OUT

The scary short is now a scary movie - and it actually works!

Everyone has at least some fear of the dark - no one walks into a completely dark room and thinks "Oh good, I can't see anything and that's how I prefer it!" No, you fumble for a light switch ASAP, because even if you're not afraid of a creepy monster in there, you ARE afraid of walking into a desk and banging up your knee - it's still a fear! For many, they DO fear what could be lurking in the unknown and will only feel safe when the lights are turned on, so it's no surprise that Lights Out isn't the first nor will it be the last horror film to focus on a horror villain that sticks to the dark, where even a basic flashlight can keep you safe and ward the evil thing off. Darkness Falls is the obvious example, and I feared that this would be similarly underwhelming - luckily, that wasn't the case, and I suspect the movie will be a big draw, especially among those who hated The Witch for daring to be more subtle with its brand of terror. You want jump scares? You'll get your jump scares here - and they're actually pretty effective!

In an opening scene, an employee at a textile company sees "something" in a dark corner of a room as she turns the light out, only for it to disappear when the light turns back on. She turns it off and on a few times until something scarier happens (you've seen this in the trailer), but she does not get offed - she goes to tell her boss (Billy Burke) about it. Burke is on the phone with his son who is concerned with his mother's strange behavior, and thus doesn't have time to pay attention to this nonsense, though he gets his own scare fairly soon thereafter, and also figures out the ghost's weakness with surprising quickness - if he stays in the light, he'll be OK. If he's in the dark... well, he probably doesn't want to know what happens then. As the film is based on the same-named short from a few years back, it's not surprising that the plot doesn't get too much more complicated than this, but what DID surprise me was how relatively entertaining it was. It's not a great horror film to be championed for decades to come, but it's a solid scare generator that keeps it simple and succeeds where it counts.

There are two things that I think are key to its success, separating it from the rubbish I half-expected it to be. One is that Diana, our ghost, does NOT mess around - I was actually kind of stunned at how frequently she attacked, and how violent those attacks were. Her first victim is crumbled and mangled as if they were just slammed into a tree by Jason Voorhees himself, and she attacks the other, "safer" cast members (read: a child and also our heroine, Teresa Palmer) with the same sort of intensity. She also rarely takes a break, finding any kind of dark and taking the opportunity to lash out even during the daytime (from under a bed), giving the film a sense of "you're never really safe" without ever breaking its established rule (though she lucks out with an inordinate number of electrical failures that turn well-lit rooms into death chambers in an instant). And while the trailer focuses on Diana's more subtle scares (standing motionless in a dark corner of a room, with a protagonist unsure of what they're seeing), she's not exactly subtle for the most part - she's big on grabbing and throwing people, almost always finding ways to be more proactive.

And that's why the jumps that worked on me did so with such success. Not only do they avoid pointless and telegraphed fake scares as much as possible (no mirror scares!), but I am accustomed to getting a break in these sort of movies, usually to slow down and let a bunch of exposition get in the way. Here, most of what minimal backstory the movie has is presented to us in the first half, allowing first time director David F. Sandberg (expanding his original, well-received short) to keep the scares coming at a pretty fast clip during the movie's last half hour or so. Sure, we get little additional tidbits about Diana here and there, but it's not like the movie stops cold for some doctor to give five minutes' worth of exposition when there's only 20 minutes left in the runtime. Indeed, it's only about 80 minutes long so it'd be poor form for Sandberg or screenwriter Eric Heisserer to waste too many of them on the jibber jabber. With a movie like The Ring you kind of want those bits of explanation because there's a mystery to solve in between all the scary bits, but this isn't that kind of horror film. The plot is simple - scary ghost in the dark wants to kill you - and the filmmakers embrace that freedom. I'd compare it (at least on that level) to Halloween, and I know it's an apt connection to make, as Heisserer named a minor character "Brian Andrews" (the actor who played Tommy Doyle) as if to pay homage without being too on the nose (and thus annoying) about it. Let the sequels ruin everything with complicated backstories and "mythology" - for now let's just enjoy the simply and scary ride.

The other ace in its hole is the character of Bret, played by Alexander DiPersia. He plays Palmer's boyfriend, and when introduced he seems like the usual sort of horror movie supporting character who exists for two reasons: having an "outsider" for the heroine to explain things to (for our benefit, i.e. why she is estranged from her mom) and having a shoo-in for obvious victim, since we're pretty sure Palmer and her little brother won't be murdered by this pissed-off ghost. But he manages to almost kind of steal the movie in some respects, sticking by Palmer (even if she won't ever let him sleep at her apartment or keep some clothes there despite dating for eight months) and getting in some hero action near the end. There's a bit where he is running for a safe spot and gets nabbed along the way - how he thinks fast and saves himself had the audience cheering in that same way they do when a character played by William Atherton gets punched out. He also subtly inches closer to a light source in a different scene, another crowd-pleasing moment from a character who could have easily been the guy you can't wait to see torn to shreds by the villain. Going back to what I was saying the other day - making your characters just genuinely likable instead of piling them with generic drama can go a long way, at least with me.

The movie also has an intriguing backdrop involving mental illness, something you don't expect to see in a big studio PG-13 summer horror movie. Palmer's mom, played by Maria Bello (ALSO something you don't expect to see in this sort of movie), has already driven away one husband and her daughter with her issues, and now she has gone off her meds and is upsetting her youngest child by talking to herself. It's her little brother's safety that concerns Palmer enough to return to the family home, where we learn about Diana and how she is connected to Bello's recent behavior. Heisserer says that the idea of "Diana" came out of the notion that someone trying to keep something in the dark (i.e. a mental illness) can ultimately prove to be harmful to themselves and their family, so the movie just takes that concept and gives it a physical presence, a far more interesting idea than the usual "boogeyman seeks revenge" kind of thing that the likes of Darkness Falls offered. I suspect some groups who like to rant and rave about how mental illnesses are depicted in movies will have a field day when the film is released next month (there's one aspect where I couldn't even blame them, though to explain would be very spoiler-y), but horror audiences should just appreciate that there was a little more thought behind the scares than we could have reasonably expected given the film's logline.

But you can (and some, I'm sure, certainly WILL) ignore the metaphor and just enjoy it on the surface level, which I found surprisingly solid on its own. This is pure amusement park ride horror, designed to give you jolts at frequent intervals and send you home smiling, perhaps before you've even finished your large popcorn. Ordinarily I'd scoff at such a thing, but Sandberg and his editors did such a fine job of making their scares work on me (I even jumped at one that's in the trailer!) that I have to give it its due credit, and can't fault it for the "sin" of functioning exactly as intended. And by limiting the rules and backstory, it kept the movie from getting bogged down in potential plot holes and logic errors. Will I watch it again? Probably not - I can't see myself getting spooked on a repeat viewing. But I never have to ride the X2 at Six Flags again to know it's a pretty fun roller coaster, either.

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