The title of this horror film couldn’t be more apt, as a week ago I suffered a giant retinal tear that caused sudden vision loss in my left eye and required a two-hour emergency surgery to be treated. First it was “lights out” in my left eye, and then it was “lights out” under anesthesia in the operating room. So darkness and the notion of unfamiliar places are foremost on my mind as I gather my thoughts regarding director David F. Sandberg’s first feature, Lights Out (2016).
The plot, in short:
Paul, a mannequin storehouse owner, is attacked by a creature that appears to exist only in darkness, moments after speaking with his son, Martin. Meanwhile Paul’s wife, Sophie, who has a history of mental illness, has started acting strangely. Young Martin appears to be haunted by the same tenebrous force that killed Paul, and tries to stay awake all night to keep safe. The stalking entity, whom we learn Sophie calls “Diana,” goes after Martin even when Rebecca, his stepsister, intervenes to protect him. Rebecca and her boyfriend join forces to try and get Sophie back on her medication, and to face off Diana together, before it’s too late for everyone involved.
What works best about Lights Out is its premise—potently introduced in the sequence at the mannequin storehouse—and the film’s overall production value.
The idea of a force that only acts in darkness is both economical and scary on a primal level, sort of like the unrelenting pursuit at the heart of the magisterial It Follows (2014). Unfortunately, that’s where the comparison between these films ends. Whereas It Follows revealed the “rules of the game,” in other words, the constraints and parameters of the evil force’s operation, artfully, by showing us how the characters’ knowledge gradually expanded with experience, Lights Out prefers to repeatedly scare the viewer with variations of the same montage that do little to deepen our understanding, and then throws flashback explanations at us to make up for it. When we do learn more about Diana’s nature, the revelations are mundane rather than provocatively mystifying.
The other main problem is the muddled emotional focus. We begin with Paul and one of his employees as our point-of-view characters. That’s the last we’ll ever see of them. Well, okay, the premise-by-prologue technique can work well in horror movies (e.g. Scream (1996)), but here it signals the beginning of a troublesome pattern of switching perspectives. After the prologue our attention is drawn to Rebecca; we are introduced to her apartment, her boyfriend, their perspectives. Then the focus shifts over to Martin and his Elm-Street-stay-awake predicament. Then we’re given a backstory about Sophie and Diana, and asked to empathize with Sophie’s plight. Then back to Rebecca, and so on. By the time the movie’s final act comes around, our empathizing energies have unfortunately been diffused by this constant shuffling around of vantage points.
Sandberg’s direction is tight and consistent, and he squeezes a lot of juice from the film’s what-stirs-in-the-darkness conceit, specially with strobe-like effects. The characters’ use of all sorts of lights to try and hold Diana at bay is ingenious if not groundbreaking. The editing, by Michel Aller and Kirk M. Morri, plays fair with the audience, for the most part, and doesn’t pander to the lowest jump-scare-denominator, but neither does it ever cohere into anything more functional than the simple sum of its storytelling parts. There is also something vaguely, generically retro about the set design of the families’ living spaces and Martin’s school that tends to weaken credibility.
Chris Bellamy, in his review of The Conjuring 2 (2016), makes a great observation about the use of negative spaces: “In his composition and staging for The Conjuring 2, Wan makes darkness itself—pockets of pitch black, darkness bordering on emptiness—the focal point, like black holes hovering inside the characters' physical space.” This subtle but powerful technique is at best half-used, or used inconsistently, throughout Lights Out. The result is that even during the film’s scariest scenes, we don’t feel the “hovering,” just a series of brutal assaults from an external force. Which is ironic, because Diana only exists through and in Sophie, and this could have been used to make the menace much more internal from the start.
There’s something else that The Conjuring 2—and for that matter Mama (2013), The Babadook (2014), and We Are Still Here (2015), all of which excel in their use of shadow space—has that Lights Out lacks: characters that transcend the traumas or threats they confront, rather than being defined by them. The character development in Lights Out is paint-by-numbers. This becomes clear in the initial interaction that Paul has with his son, and in the way that Rebecca’s posters of Avenged Sevenfold etc. are supposed to give us insight into her state of mind (in one scene, another character casts a judgmental eye on her after scanning said posters, having gleaned all there is to know about her). As much as I want to care for Martin, what do I really know about him, besides his enjoyment of coloring books?
These issues can be traced back to Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, which is serviceable and occasionally poignant, but never strays far from horror-flick conventions of telegraphic character development. While this wasn’t particularly impactful in some of his previous film writing credits, like the A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) reboot and Final Destination 5 (2011), it becomes a greater narrative liability in Lights Out, which, as an original story, lacks those other movies’ existing franchise resonances.
One of the film’s most fun sequences, in a B-movie kind of way, is the flashback that recalls the backstory of Sophie’s childhood at Mulberry Hill, and how she was befriended/tricked by Diana into the relationship that would eventually come to dominate Sophie’s life. It made me want to delve deeper into this backstory. That’s unfortunate, because we should be more enthralled by what is happening in the film’s present than by hints of how we got here. Diana’s motivation is also weak. And more focus on Sophie as a sympathetic character would have been needed for her final actions to have real impact.
Given the limitations of their source material, the cast is good. Maria Bello, in particular, is excellent; I wish she had been given more to do. Teresa Palmer’s performance is less consistent, with praiseworthy gravitas and subtle implication delivered in the service of relatively minor moments but an underwhelming response during what should have been the film’s most emotionally-wrenching moment.
Special kudos to Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, which consistently breathes life into the material. “Rebecca’s Theme,” steeped in an overall mood of elegant mystery, hints at something wondrous and otherworldly. The more melodic queues, such as “Mulberry Hill,” help us to emotionally invest in the characters by suggesting a certain introspective maturity not evident on the surface. The atmospheric tracks also serve to foreshadow Sophie’s eventual sacrifice, the emotional context of which is powerfully rendered in “No You Without Me.” This adds much-needed pathos to Sophie’s decision, not only in its immediate aftermath, but also by sonically depicting the tortuous journey she’s taken to get there—check out that subtle cascade of haunting, disconsolate voices two minutes and forty five seconds into “Sophie’s Mind,” and how it’s crushed by a boom of aural terror moments later as her grip on reality weakens. The predominantly orchestral nature of the score is somewhat reminiscent of Lorne Balfe’s beautiful work for Blackwood (2014), sans the stirring organs and virtuosic violins. Praise also to veteran sound designer William R. Dean, who strikes an effective balance between immersive soundscapes and Wallfisch’s compelling compositions.
Ultimately, despite a gripping hook and solid overall craft, Lights Out can’t decide what it is, and suffers for it. Unfolding paranormal investigation with layers of noir revelation? Alienated siblings courageously uniting to combat shared demons? Saga of a parasitic creature that has latched on to a mom’s fragile psyche? A tragic study in mental illness? The frequent changes in emphasis undercut each of these possibilities.
Lights Out? More like partial eclipse.