LIGHTS OUT (2016) Scary But Ordinary

lights out poster

LIGHTS OUT (2016) is well-acted, smartly directed, and contains jump scares in all the right places.  I should have loved this movie.

I did not.

And that’s because at the end of the day, it’s missing something important.  In spite of all the things it has going for it, it just never gets all that interesting.  It’s all kind of a snooze.

It opens with a chilling pre-credit sequence, and if you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you know what I’m talking about.  It’s the scene where the woman shuts the light off and sees a creepy figure standing in the darkness.  She puts the light on and the figure is gone.  Back off, there’s the figure again.  Creepy!

She tries to tell her boss Paul (Billy Burke) that she just saw something weird, but he’s too busy on the phone and tells her it’s fine and to just go home.  Should have listened to your employee, Paul.  When Paul closes up shop for the night, the same phenomenon happens to him, but only worse, because this time the shadowy figure is out for blood and kills him.

Flash forward to Paul’s young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who is devastated by his father’s death, especially because he now lives alone with his mentally ill mother Sophie (Maria Bello), who’s skipping her medication and keeping the house in the dark.  Worse yet, she keeps talking to someone who’s not there, someone she calls Diana.

Unable to sleep because he’s afraid, Martin seeks out his adult step-sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) who knows all about their mother’s mental illness.  It’s why she left home in the first place.  She tells Martin that Diana isn’t real, and that he should not be worried.

But when Diana shows up and attacks them, Rebecca changes her tune and decides with the help of her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) to confront her mother and demand answers, a decision that doesn’t make Diana very happy.

LIGHTS OUT was written and directed by David F. Sandberg, and it’s based on his short film of the same name.  Sandberg really does a fine job here, both with the writing and the directing.  On the surface, there really isn’t much wrong with this movie.

There are plenty of jump scares, although take away the insanely loud soundtrack and they wouldn’t be as effecitive.  But they’re there, and I can’t argue that this movie won’t make you jump.

And the story, in a screenplay that Sandberg co-wrote with Eric Heisserer, is halfway decent. It also deviates from the normal ghost/demon territory which similar films of this type have been stuck in lately.  Diana, the supernatural entity, is something different, and it’s a refreshing take on the haunting trope.  Unfortunately, this revelation doesn’t happen until the end of the movie, and so for most of the film Diana is just another variation of similar threats we’ve seen in films like INSIDIOUS (2008) and THE CONJURING (2013).

Co-writer Eric Heisserer also wrote the screenplays for the remake of  A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010), FINAL DESTINATION 5 (2011), and THE THING (2011), the prequel to the John Carpenter classic of the same name.  None of these movies did all that much for me.  His screenplay here for LIGHTS OUT is on par with these other movies, perhaps slightly better.

The acting is fine.  Teresa Palmer handles the lead role of big sister Rebecca with ease.  The best thing about her performance is she makes Rebecca seem like a real person, not just a heroine in a horror movie.  Young Gabriel Bateman is okay as little brother Martin.  As child characters go, I’ve seen better, and I’ve seen worse.

I’ve been a fan of Maria Bello’s for years now, and she’s terrific here as the tormented mentally ill mom Sophie.  She makes Sophie such a sad sympathetic character, a real character, that one could argue that the true horror here isn’t Diana but what’s going on inside Sophie’s head.

I was actually happy that Billy Burke’s character of father/husband Paul was killed off in the opening moments of the movie.  Seeing him playing a dad only reminded me of the TWILIGHT movies.  Shiver!

Probably the best peformance in the film belongs to Alexander DiPersia as Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret.  He’s yet another character who comes off as a real genuine person.  There’s a sincerity about him that is like a breath of fresh air for a character in a horror movie.  I wish he had been in the movie even more.

And a shout out goes to Alicia Vela-Bailey who played Diana and made her frightening and creepy.   That’s another positive about this movie, that director Sandberg chose to avoid as many CGI effects as possible.  The film is better for it.

And there are some well crafted scare scenes here as well.

The theme of LIGHTS OUT is abandonment.  All the central characters either fear or experience having been abandoned by someone they love.  Young Martin lost his dad.  Sophie’s first husband left her, and her second was murdered.  Rebecca’s dad walked out on her and her mom, which is why throughout the film she refuses to commit to her boyfriend Bret since she doesn’t trust people in relationships.

So, with all these things going for it, why didn’t I absolutely love LIGHTS OUT?  For the simple reason that in this case we have a film where the sum of its parts doesn’t equal a whole, and that’s because the filmmakers forgot one important ingredient:  they forgot to make this movie interesting.

I liked the characters, I liked the scares, but the story?  All it would take would be one conversation between Rebecca and Sophie early on to set the tone and get to the bottom of what’s going on. It shouldn’t take an entire movie.  The story is very thin.

Explain who Diana is from the outset and then take it from there.  Why is Diana doing these things?  Tell us immediately and take it from there.  Because who and what Diana is, is a fascinating idea that is worthy of an entire movie rather than just a last reel revelation.

LIGHTS OUT also suffers from being a by-the-numbers horror movie.  I wasn’t surprised by anything I saw.  I wasn’t intrigued, nor was I captivated.  I felt like I was walking through a funhouse which was scary for sure, but was the “same scary” as every other funhouse I had walked through.

All the rage right now is the new Netflix TV series STRANGER THINGS.  I watched the first episode and was blown away by its style, its characters, its writing, and its oomph.  It had me within the first few minutes.  It’s the kind of storytelling missing from a movie like LIGHTS OUT.

But that’s a television show, some will argue.  It has more time to develop characters.  True, but that’s never stopped the great filmmakers from making captivating thought-provoking movies.

The bar for horror movies should be held high.  I expect the same quality from horror movies as other genres.  Why should we ask for anything less?

LIGHTS OUT, for what it is, is fine.

But what it is, is just another ordinary horror movie.

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