In 2013, Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg made “Lights Out”, a three-minute master class in how to execute an effective jump scare. In it, actress Lotta Losten plays a woman who sees a human-shaped entity in the darkness of her apartment. When she turns the light on, however, it disappears. Lights on, lights off, lights on and off again, until a glimpse at the shadow’s true form couples with a slight squeal of strings to make us shriek. A brief respite, then he does it again, eventually giving us an even freakier final image. The shriek becomes a scream. It’s good. And scary.
Unfortunately, Lights Out, Sandberg’s feature-length adaptation of the short, is neither of those things. It still concerns this creature of the darkness, but centers the story around twentysomething Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and pre-teen Martin (Gabriel Bateman), a pair of siblings whose disturbed mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), is beset by visions of someone named Diana. But Diana, it turns out, is much more than a vision; rather, she’s a spectral monster that thrives in darkness and is harmed by light both natural and superficial. And since she wants Sophie all to herself that means killing off the others. As such, Rebecca and Martin must band together with Rebecca’s dopey boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia, looking fresh off a tour with Daughtry), to both overcome Diana and bring Sophie back from the brink of mental collapse.
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It’s wonderful that The Conjuring director James Wan recognized Sandberg’s talent, and even more so that virality gave this young filmmaker an opportunity to make a big-budget studio film, but some stories benefit from brevity. Nobody liked the “Lights Out” short because of the characters or the monster or the “story”; they liked it because it got under their skin. By stretching it out, building a mythology, and putting laughably bad dialogue in people’s mouths, Sandberg hasn’t just stripped his movie of scares, he’s hobbled his own skills as a filmmaker.
Let’s circle back to jump scares. Sandberg’s original short is essentially two done right: slow build, repetition, the suffusion of dread within supposed comfort, and finally, along with a gentle strike of sound, the terrifying reveal. Wan’s a fine filmmaker in his own right, but the agonizing, dunderheaded approach to jump scares he demonstrated in the Insidious series seems to have infected his protege. Jump scares are all Sandberg seems to have in his bag of tricks, and each is clunkily executed and met with an agonizing, ear-piercing shriek. Watching Lights Out is like standing next to an idiot with an air horn, never quite knowing when it’s about to blow in your ear. It’s a far cry from the freaky grace of his short.
But that’s not the only problem. The story is overwrought, the characters limp, and the performances disaffected. But it’s hard to blame Palmer, Bateman, or Bello, who are all tasked with delivering hilariously expository clumps of dialogue (“He’s my stepdad; my real dad ran away when I was 10”) while navigating a minefield of illogical choices. Diana, too, is a mess. Sometimes she possesses the ability to shatter bulbs and black out power grids, other times not. Her connection to Sophie, as well as her end goals and plans for Sophie’s family, is equally murky. She’s had a million chances to kill them off, so why now?
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All that said, Sandberg conjures up a few inspired moments. His use of shadow and light is handsomely pronounced, as it should be with such material. And, in two effective sequences, he captures the fun and anxiety of leaping between light and dark by exploiting the rhythm of a blinking tattoo sign and the comical practicalities of using a crank-style flashlight in such a scenario. Also, Diana’s origin story would serve as a chilling campfire tale were it told without all of the nonsense surrounding it.
In the end, however, Lights Out feels overcooked and underthought. The premise itself has legs, but Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer (whose IMDB profile exposes him as a pox upon the horror genre) can never summon something clever or novel from its countless tendrils. There’s also the lingering sense that its central theme was never quite threaded properly. Horror as a genre is rife with subtext, symbols, and metaphors; we always wonder what the monster is supposed to represent, and the question of how it’s conquered (or not) says something about that particular fear or anxiety. If the ending to Lights Out is interpreted in concert with its established metaphor, the film’s message is both repulsive and irresponsible.
Hey, at least we still have the short.