Monday, August 22, 2016
David F. Sandberg’s ‘Lights Out’ shares a few touchstones with ‘The Babadook’: both are debut features extrapolated from an earlier short film; both have as their antagonist a silhouetted almost-human figure with hands tapering to knife-like fingers; and both develop their quotient of horror from the reality of depression and grief. But whereas ‘The Babadook’ demonstrates a stark understanding of how two bereaved people can psychologically gouge chunks out of each other, ‘Lights Out’ uses its depression/grief element merely as a plot device.
The sufferer here is Sophie (Maria Bello), whose husband Paul (Billy Burke) is viscerally despatched in the textile warehouse he manages in an opening sequence that makes good on everything the trailer promised in terms of creepiness, ramped up tension and big scare moments. Sophie’s already in a bad place and behaving irrationally, as evidenced in a facetime conversation between Paul and his son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) just minutes before Paul buys it.
Her behaviour intensifies in the aftermath. She has long and emotive conversation with someone who isn’t there. Then all of sudden mom’s imaginary friend doesn’t seem to be so imaginary anymore and Martin is having problems sleeping. Enter Martin’s adult step-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), long since moved out due to her fractious relationship with Sophie – not to mention a few buried memories that come to the fore when Martin’s school, worried about his well-being, can’t get hold of Sophie and call Rebecca instead.
Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer quickly establish a tug of war for Martin between Sophie and Rebecca, with well-meaning school nurse Emma (Andi Osho) and Rebecca’s sometime consort Brett (Alexander DiPersia) on the sidelines. Kudos to them for not overdoing the melodrama in this respect, and simply being content to sketch in the interrelationships in fast and broad strokes before wheeling the supernatural back on stage and keeping the tension at tendon-wrenching levels for the rest of the film.
Because that’s essentially what ‘Lights Out’ is: a delivery system for squirmily tense set-pieces punctuated by jump-out-of-your-seat moments. It’s an exercise in framing shots for maximum didn’t-something-move-in-the-background-or-didn’t-it head-fuckery. The beautifully simple concept – hammered home in the marketing campaign – is irresistible: creepy thing disappears when the lights go on but gets closer when they go out. And because creepy thing is supernatural, it can cheerfully fuck around with fuse boxes and entire city grids. Not to mention – a little goal-post-shifter that Sandberg and Heisserer introduce late in the game – being impervious to certain forms of artificial lighting.
So efficiently does ‘Lights Out’ get on with the business of first unsettling then outright scaring the piss out of its audience, that it almost seems curmudgeonly to criticise the script, but it has to be said: there is some lazy fucking writing going on here. Rebecca and Brett’s relationship scenes generate all the chemistry and human drama of a newly painted wall slowly drying. The big this-is-who-the-ghost-is-and-why-they’re-haunting-us reveal is pure boilerplate. Rebecca’s backstory is either wastefully undeveloped or the film originally ran 20 minutes longer but the producers got cold feet and chopped it out. The performances aren’t much to write home about, either. Palmer, who I liked a hell of a lot in ‘Warm Bodies’, is one-note. Bello isn’t so much hammy as the entire porcine. DiPersia does what he can with what isn’t so much a role as a few dozen words and not much in the way of stage direction. Bateman arguably does the best work.
The real stars of the show, though, are the effects work and sound design that augment Alicia Vela-Bailey’s performance as the ghost; and Marc Spicer’s cinematography, in which every blurred background and every shadowy corner becomes a lurking place for something unspeakable. I haven’t seen a horror movie in quite some time that plays so effectively and so frequently with false scares, goading you into thinking that a door’s about to open or a face appear in a mirror or a figure emerge from the darkness, only for the anticipated payoff not to happen. Thus are the audience kept on tenterhooks. Thus do the actual scares find their target.