2016 has been a strong year for horror. The Witch, Under the Shadow, Green Room, and other notables are destined to wind up on a slew of end-of-the-year best-of lists. And these are just a few of the bigger, hyped-up movies that have hit.; we haven’t even started digging into less buzzed-about titles. And there are still more on the way—Don’t Breathe and The Woods are two I’m particularly jazzed on.
But as strong as the genre has been so far this year, not every film is on this near-classic level. Director David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out falls short of this mark. Perfectly serviceable, and not without certain charms, the story of standoffish loner, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), her troubled half-brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), and their haunted mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), is never more than a fun, forgettable B-movie trifle.
Based on Sandberg’s short (roughly two-minute) film of the same name, Lights Out is brisk and lean, clocking in at 81 minutes. Including the credits. Moderately enjoyable, the film plays on our collective inherent fear of the dark by introducing a quivering, J-horror-esque specter that quite literally dwells in the shadows. It’s an intriguing premise with some promise. But after an opening scene that will make you want to sleep with the lights on for a week, the strain of the limited scope and threadbare story becomes all too apparent.
Rebecca became estranged from her mother after her father abandoned them and Sophie had a breakdown. Some years later, when Sophie’s new husband, Martin’s father, is mysteriously killed, she endures a similar episode, reverting to a manic-depressive state. Only there’s something much more sinister and terrifying going on tied to her condition.
Palmer is solid and charismatic as the loner who thought she was going crazy herself all these years. One day she’s going to good role and surprise the hell out of people, I swear. It just hasn’t happened yet. Bateman is bland and wooden, but passable as the younger sibling. (He reminds me of a less capable version of the kid from Jurassic Park.) Bello is overwrought, asked to do little more than twitch and cry. Still, she imbues Sophie with the ragged weariness of someone on the edge.
Horror movie tropes abound in Lights Out. Sandberg hits on everything from the big spooky house to the flickering lights to the shadowy figure back-lit in a doorway. A few jump scares can be found, but there’s not much in the way of tension, atmosphere, or innovation—save one cool sequence that involves muzzle flashes. It even trots out the ubiquitous mental hospital angle. Light thread and loose connections stich this all together. Pull at the pieces and the seams and the internal causal logic stretches in an unflattering way. Nothing unexpected happens, and convenient plot contrivances show up precisely where convenient plot contrivances always show up.
As vapid and inconsequential as Lights Out is, it ultimately leaves a bad taste in my mouth with its dismissive portrayal of mental illness. It’s damn near impossible to discuss without giving away the ending, but Sophie is bullied and persecuted and tormented throughout, and the antagonistic elements are a manifestation of this. The metaphor of clinical depression is transparent and flung about with reckless abandon. And the way it wraps up is not only cliché, but also flip and trivial, borderline irresponsible. I’m not sure the film even realizes the message it imparts.
Lights Out is entertaining enough as a momentary distraction, but it’s nothing greater than that. The scares are minimal and modest, but with a with a lean run time, there’s not much fat or waste. Cookie cutter studio horror, Lights Out is disposable junk food genre fare. It’s adequate for what it is, it gets the job (mostly) done, but there’s no staying power and nothing to set it apart. This is good to occupy and entertain for a brief moment then evaporate into the horror ether. While that’s fine, that’s all it is. [Grade: C+]