If you aren’t easily spooked by films that literally revolve around things that go bump in the night, the low budget horror thriller Lights Out won’t do very much for you. On the other hand, if you like films in the vein of The Ring or Insidious, you’ll get a kick out of director David Sandberg’s unpretentiously effective, no frills chiller. It doesn’t aim particularly high, nor does it need to. It wants to suitably spook viewers for just a shade over 80 minutes with barely enough plot and character to sustain it all.
If Lights Out looks and acts a bit lightweight, that’s probably because Sandberg adapted it from his own three minute short of the same name, which was briefly a viral video sensation. While the feature version dispenses with the concept of the short in the opening sequence, there’s still enough substance here to keep genre fans engaged.
In this beefed and amped up spin-off produced by The Conjuring and Saw mastermind James Wan, Teresa Palmer stars as Amy, a young woman who long since left behind her emotionally disturbed mother (Maria Bello). Her days of ignoring her mother’s particularly troublesome brand of crazy are over when her younger half-brother (Gabriel Bateman) starts complaining that he hasn’t been sleeping well. Amy confronts her mother who still believes that she has a super secret best friend named Diana, who has a particularly nasty aversion to light and anyone that isn’t Amy’s mom. The “best friend” manifests itself as a spooky ghoul prone to attacking and killing whenever the lights are turned off.
It’s a perfect springboard for a spooky movie that takes place predominantly in a spooky house, and Sandberg knows exactly how far he can go with it. There’s not really much to say positively or negatively about Lights Out because Sandberg delivers exactly what’s on the tin: a movie about a ghost that attacks in the dark. There are no writing tricks I could attempt to make it sound any better or worse than that without being somewhat disingenuous.
There’s an attempt to turn the film into a bit of a domestic drama with Amy trying to keep her younger sibling safe in spite of Children’s Protective Services stating that the kid needs to stay with mom. Briefly it looks as if Diana might all be in the troubled head of Bello’s character, and its manifestations are just reflections of how the kids see their mother, but alas Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5, the reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street) aren’t interested in much more than the obvious shots of people trying to get wind-up flashlights to work or finding ways to keep candles lit while being attacked.
It’s fitfully fun, especially during the climactic showdown between the family and Diana, and I can see the target audience of easily spooked teens having a blast with this, but it’s a dull movie to talk about and try to be critical of. It would be easy to dismiss if not for some fits of ingenuity (the best involving creative light sources that can scare the spectre away). I appreciated the brevity of it all, and a tonally consistent commitment to a gimmick. Combine that with a knowing sense of campy humour (especially from Bello, who knows exactly what movie she signed up for, and Alexander DiPersia as Amy’s initially useless, eventually useful boyfriend), and you have a decent enough scare flick that takes itself only as seriously as it has to.