I went to see Lights Out this weekend, the new horror movie written by Eric Heisserer and directed by David Sandberg. It comes as no surprise to me that the film was produced by James Wan as he seems to be behind just about every scary movie that has hit cinemas in the last few years, and Lights Out has that familiar vibe to it that we’ve come to expect from the likes of the Insidious movies and The Conjurings. One difference with Lights Out compared to those other movies, however, is the fact that it started life as short film of Sandberg’s that was then adapted by Heisserer with a few tweaks to the story to accommodate the longer running time. Overall I’d say it’s a serviceable boofest but I have to qualify that I do have some genuinely mixed feelings about it.
To give the filmmakers credit where credit is due, he certainly starts off with a very creepy little film. Keeping very much in line with his short film it all kicks off with a really nice introduction to the villain of the piece in a situation that helps establish some of the ground rules for how it will operate and kill for the next 81 minutes, as well as dispatching the first victim with maximum effect. This momentum, unfortunately, doesn’t last as the film quickly loses itself in the overall kookines of its own premise and its one-note set pieces.
I became frustrated as Sandberg and Heisserer established a reasonable set of ground rules only to have his monster begin to display abilities that have more to do with advancing the plot than creating a believable supernatural threat and a back story for it that only serves to confuse us instead of heightening the fear. Instead of worrying about the survival of the heroes of our story I honestly started to pay more attention to what works against the creature and what doesn’t as things progressed.
Some light apparently stops the creature but not all light. Flashlights and candles work as does sunlight. But black light doesn’t and it all depends on where it’s pointing and ambient light doesn’t seem to affect it in general. By the time I had catalogued what’s what with the different light sources we were into the climax. And it didn’t matter what I had put together because Sandberg just did whatever looked cool or might be scary with little regard to what came before.
Every horror movie requires a certain degree of suspension of disbelief in order to work and be enjoyable. How else can you explain demon possession, man-eating subterranean dwellers, and the fact that Jason and Michael simply cannot die? But when you subvert your own narrative to go for the easy scare it takes the viewer out of their heads and out of your movie. They become too busy with trying to piece together the scattered internal logic of it all and figure out where things went off the rails.
Had Sandberg and Heisserer kept things simple and really leaned into the drama of this family and what they were dealing with, ratcheting up the suspense and stakes of the story rather than relying on his inconsistent creeper to provide all the forward momentum, I, and other members of the audience, would instead be prying our fingers out of armrests between scenes rather than trying to figure all this stuff out on the scorecard in our heads.
These were problems the short didn’t have and the problem with taking a story that is less than three minutes and extending it to over eighty. Also, while the dark silhouetted figure remains one of the creepiest aspects of Lights Out, having seen the full reveal of the creature in the feature film, I found the spook in the short genuinely more unsettling.
And before you think things were all bad, there were some good performances by the leads Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, and Maria Bello who played their mother and provided the ‘star power’ to the film. Sandberg also does a really good job of keeping things visually interesting and maintaining a sense of dread for a lot of the film. It’s just when they’re forced to wrap things up and be expository that the film starts to lose that tension and, ultimately, my interest.
Lights Out is a straight-up popcorn movie. Pure junk food cinema. It’ll spook you a bit, keep your eyes occupied for almost an hour-and-a-half, but it’s ultimately forgettable, and will not hold up to repeated viewings. There are worse things you could do with your time but I’d skip the theatre.
Or better yet, check out the short film here and save yourself 80 minutes.