When the trailer for David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out hit the internet, it was a viral sensation. In one of 2016’s more successful marketing campaigns, the team behind mainstream horrors latest offering cleverly made everyone fear the one thing it’s pretty impossible to escape; the dark.
Based on Sandberg’s short film of the same name, but with a much needed expanded narrative, Lights Out falls into the category of ‘messed up white family with a too-big house’ horror, hardly a daring concept. Firstly, you have Rebecca (Theresa Palmer) the older wayward sibling who was dealt a bad hand in life and has suddenly become very alternative and wears a lot of eyeliner, she’s fairly comfortable with her life in her own flat (obviously above a tattoo parlour) until she’s called into her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman)’s school because he isn’t sleeping at home. We learn that at home their mum Sophie (Maria Bello) is battling depression once again and has come off her medication, she’s speaking to the walls and Martin is so scared he won’t sleep. Fearing that Sophie is going to place Martin in the same position she was in Rebecca storms over to the house to confront her mother. The pair’s already rocky relationship is tested when she finds the house in darkness, and fears for Martin’s safety. Putting it down to Sophie’s reluctance to take her medication, Rebecca deems her simply negligent and fails to acknowledge Martin’s claims of a malignant presence within the home that lurks in the shadows.
It’s not until Martin spends the night at Rebecca’s that she finally starts to see the dark truth of what’s going on, when she is attacked in her flat by a dark figure that only appears in the dark, leaving behind an etching on the floor of the name ‘Diana’. This is where the shadowed figure’s presence becomes questionable, why would a dark spirit leave breadcrumbs as to their identity in a home of someone who probably would have otherwise not bothered to look? This is the one slip-up of ‘Diana’, the presence attached to mum Sophie. Within Sophie’s huge home, she is devilish and wholly aggressive, in a way that other recent horror ghouls and demons have not achieved. She’s whip fast and packs a genuinely frightening punch, one that at some moments of brilliance seems to move away from regular jump-scare fanfare and achieves a level of deeply personal anger within Diana that hasn’t been seen in the likes of The Conjuring 2’s Nun for example; one scene where Diana goes WWE smackdown on Rebecca’s dishy boyfriend in a shaded archway is particularly brilliant. This is a spirit with a vendetta and an aching desire to wipe out the competition that genuinely makes the threat more real for the family.
On the other hand the specific backstory relating to Sophie does work to the detriment of the films scare-factor. Even though tales of mental institutions and experiments gone wrong is an overused trope in the horror genre, this isn’t the issue here, the attachment to Sophie and Diana’s origin as a once-living person and Sophie’s ‘friend’ make the fear of the dark less universal and more specific, it fails to step up to the mark of the all-encompassing fear of the lights being turned out that was promised in the trailer.
For your regular cinema goer though, this is a mere chip in an otherwise upstanding foundation. Lights Out takes the conventions of 2010’s horror and does manage to add a bit more. There’s a clever use of technology throughout, a black-light make for a stunning scene that echoes the nightmare world of Insidious, car keys present themselves as a viable escape route from Diana’s clutches and a mobile phone is utilised in a genuinely smart and not-taking-the-piss-out-of-millennials way that teen-led horror usually makes patronising.
Sure, it’s not terribly original like It Follows or The Witch and certainly doesn’t have the level of craftsmanship The Conjuring has to offer but for a first-time feature director it’s a solid piece of horror cinema that lights up in a canon of repetitively below average flicks and plays upon the time-tested notions of what makes us hide behind pillows but without sending us to sleep.
By Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screenqueens. She is 20 and from the north of England (the proper north). She believes Harmony Korine is the future and is pretty sure she coined the term ‘selfie central’. She doesn’t like Pina Coladas or getting caught in the rain but she does like Ezra Miller a whole lot. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, The Beach and Lords of Dogtown. But DON’T talk to her about Paranormal Activity. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff.