David F. Sandberg’s “Lights Out” (2016)

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Image source: movienewsguide.com

(This review contains potential SPOILERS. Proceed with caution.)

“I live in the weak and wounded.” – Session 9

Lights Out began its life as a well-regarded short film (which I haven’t seen), and it shows: running a scant 81 minutes, this feature-length expansion doesn’t have enough creative steam to populate its fleeting run time.

As far as aesthetics and characterization are concerned, Lights Out feels like a repurposed idea for an Insidious sequel. The elements are there: familial tension (in the form of rocky relations between daughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and mother Sophie (Maria Bello); little Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who’s forced to confront his fears; and a hideous, shadowy something-or-other that only appears when it’s dark. It also touches on greater themes of owning up to adult responsibility, reconciling with the past, and finding peace.

Too bad these potential points of interest are mere distractions on the way to building yet another slick, indistinct jump-scare machine.

The fact that Warner Bros. pushed Lights Out so heavily this past summer put me off seeing it theatrically; that, and the trailer looked derivative of the  J-Horror remakes that have grown incredibly tiresome over the past decade. When the reviews came rolling in, I wondered if I had prejudged the film too harshly (the film has a 77% “Fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes).

Much in the same way I scratched my head at the critical reception (and audience response) to producer James Wan’s The Conjuring – an efficient horror that still clung for dear life to loud noises and jump-scares – I found even less to like in Lights Out. Had it been the first film of its kind, it would’ve been okay. But we’ve seen things lurking in the dark – and darkness serving as a metaphor for all sorts of things (repression, powerlessness, addiction, etc) – so many times that any potential terror is felled by the placebo effect.

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Red light special: Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) in Lights Out. Image source: youtube.com

To those of us jaded toward this type of thing, it becomes more about marking off boxes on our mental checklist of cliches than experiencing any real fear.

Eric Heisserer’s (Arrival) lousy script doesn’t help matters. While horror films aren’t renowned for their sparkling, snappy dialog, every line doesn’t need to be a cliche, and every sentiment doesn’t have to be delivered with the stoicism of a bored narrator rattling off tedious exposition (at one point, Rebecca does just that). Lights Out paints itself into a corner almost immediately in trying to explain the dark-dwelling Diana (Sophie’s old friend from her childhood days in the mental ward), but with the expedited nature of the story, the filmmakers desperately hope that viewers won’t stop to question how none of it adds up. By making the threat literal, director David F. Sandberg blows any subtext out the airlock, and also calls into question how Diana is able to menace Rebecca and Martin when they’re not at Sophie’s house. (If someone has an answer to this, let me know.)

Not that all horror has to be a vessel for metaphor, but Sandberg and Heisserer fail to make Diana either a fleshed-out menace or a sympathetic monster. Sure, while one could argue that it’s Sophie’s psychosis that provides all the “depth” Diana needs, it doesn’t help that her character is undefined outside of her trauma and depression. Bello, a talented actress whose presence here is baffling, deserves better.

But perhaps most damning for Lights Out is how it can be distilled down to a composite of two vastly superior films that most multiplex audiences have probably never heard of, let alone seen. The tape-recorder- and old-photos-based backstory for Diana – not to mention the undercooked tease of psychological horror – is straight out of Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (which even featured a character who was clinically afraid of the dark!); and the family dynamics recall the much more intimate relationship between mother and son in Jennifer Kent’s wonderful dramatic horror, The Babadook. Hell, even Diana herself – a contorting, growling puddle of blackness emerging out of darkness – is a weak retread of that much more iconic movie monster.

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 4 out of 10