LIGHTS OUT (Warner Bros.)
Dir. David F. Sandberg, Script. Eric Heisserer
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Billy Burke, Maria Bello
Plot: A family is plagued by a demon who can only appear in the darkness.
I saw Lights Out, in its rough form, about two years ago – a friend alerted me to it after it went viral for winning a short horror film competition. At the time, I thought the idea was simple to the point of being uninspired, but I couldn’t help but think that the execution of it was effective. I apparently wasn’t the only one that enjoyed it: the celestial emperor of all horror, the omniscient and omni-frightening James Wan of The Conjuring fame, saw in this little two and a half minute short film the potential for yet another horror hit, released with the now renowned Wan stamp of approval. And honestly, I would advise that you go and watch the short film, because you’ll have pretty much seen the whole movie. The feature length version of Lights Out is much the same, in that its premise is basic (although the plot has been stretched out just enough to cover an 82 minute run-time that makes Interstellar feel like Andy Warhol’s Empire) and the execution is effective. Frankly, the only bonuses are the increased budget, hugely increased noise, and Teresa Palmer doing something worthwhile.
It’s a godsend for Palmer that Lights Out came about, as its finally the first moderately decent film she’s starred in for a good while: I don’t know whether Palmer picks the scripts or her agent does, but whoever is behind these choices needs after school literacy sessions. Point(-less) Break. Triple (Turgid) 9. The (Don’t I have another?) Choice. All hopeless films which you could tell Palmer shouldn’t have been in; luckily, Lights Out is a movie that gives her something to do, albeit not an Oscar-calibre role. Palmer is a pretty effective protagonist, and easily the strongest actor in the film, and its only her committed approach that actually keeps this movie on the rails for the first hour. Palmer in Lights Out is really everything the modern Scream Queen should be – resilient, determined, smart. Palmer’s boyfriend, on the other hand, is so against those values you’d have thought they’d been designed in a lab. He’s played by Alexander DiPersia, and is an awful character played awfully by an awful actor. Costumed as if torn apart between becoming a busker or playing every extra ever featured on Narcos, DiPersia’s character is meant to be a sensitive and caring man – this is not the man I met. He’s also as integral to the plot as a dancing goldfish, which you’d have thought he was when confronting how stupid the scriptwriter made him. Small mercy is that at least the ‘plot device boyfriend’ role is beginning to emerge, although nowhere near as prominently as the ‘plot device girlfriend’ role.
Maria Bello gets to play insane as a mother put under control and brought to insanity by a demon, and she’s quite convincing in the role, although it sometimes was a little too pronounced that it felt a bit cartoonish. You can understand her insanity though – if you were held captive in your own home by Lotte Losten (another reason for just sticking to the short film – she reprises her role), as Losten’s monstrous demon, so averse to the light she disappears within it, is truly frightening. I feel like its welcome to see a monster that we are told is supernaturally powerful, practically unbeatable, and have that monster not be easily fought off by some loophole that the protagonist finds. This only benefits Losten, playing feral in every way Cara Delevigne did not. She’s that scary because we only see her in the shadows (used excellently by cinematographer Marc Spicer), and like all good horror villains is held there for as long as possible, before they are revealed in their entirety – and this villain most definitely looks the part. I would almost say she could be one of the most iconic horror characters we’ve seen in a while, but she doesn’t quite have that part of her look that is unique, like Annabelle does for instance.
Losten’s chilling display isn’t the only thing brought over from the short film. Because while I’ve mentioned James Wan being the man to get a feature length film off the ground, Wan only produces, instead handing the director’s reins to the man who directed the short: David F. Sandberg (who interestingly is Lotte Losten’s wife) makes his feature debut with Lights Out, and its a pretty decent start in Hollywood for him. Lights Out, for one, isn’t quite as reliant on jump scares, and Sandberg does utilise them but within a more unsettling tone. The mother’s house feels quite spooky in its own right, and the scenes between Palmer and Bello only increase the creepiness. Eric Heisserer’s script, as you might have expected, is the weak link here, although its actually not as flimsy as you may have thought. Sure, you’ll have to get by on a meagre plot, but Heisserer stretches it out a little bit with some good pacing, and some genre elements of thrillers and dramas are added to give it a little more juice. With the exception of that infuriatingly useless boyfriend character, everybody seems to have their heads screwed on as well, which is more than can be said for most recent horror movies.
But saying that, Lights Out isn’t the only horror movie that’s worked well this year. Just looking at The Conjuring 2 a couple of months ago, you can see James Wan expertly directing a horror movie that was not only scary, but showed a real ambition to be much bigger: it almost felt like a summer blockbuster. Not only that, we’ve had a couple of smaller horrors gain genuine buzz, It Follows from last year in particular. Also, the trailers for the upcoming secret sequel to The Blair Witch Project, with the highly promising Adam Wingard in the director’s chair, shows a movie looking like a genuine game-changer. Is horror back in fashion? Is the Paranormal Activity era over? Lights Out is certainly not the classic film that confirms it, but living through the Paranormal Activity films have taught me to appreciate anything that gives me a jump.
BEST WATCHED: On YouTube, the short film. But if you’re by a cinema late at night then this is as good as anything.
Palmer’s next major film is Hacksaw Ridge, a World War II film continuing to gain some buzz as it is the return to Hollywood of the world’s second most memorable anti-Semite, Mel Gibson, as a director. It’s Gibson’s first directorial effort since Apocalypto a decade ago, and he’ll be staying behind the camera, out of the way of an all-star cast including Palmer, Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington and Hugo ‘CAST IT INTO THE FIRE’ Weaving. James Wan continues his solo reign of the horror genre, producing new chapters in the Insidious and Saw franchises that he created, but staying out of the director’s chair as he prepares to make the jump into bona-fide blockbuster territory with the DCEU instalment, Aquaman, in 2018.