By Andrew Buckner
Rating: *1/2 out of *****.
Lights Out (2016), based on the near three minute 2013 short film of the same name from director David F. Sandberg, is a cheap, cloying horror gimmick posing as a full length feature. The Atomic Monster, New Line Cinema and Grey Matter Productions release possesses a single item, a laughably redundant jump scare, in its fright arsenal. This is via a dark, ethereal figure dubbed Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey in a limited and ineffectual enactment). She all too gradually appears closer to her next victim every time the lights go out and disappears as soon as they come back on. Such is a fairly interesting notion for the Sandberg penned medium Diana first appeared in. Yet, as for an obviously pushed beyond its boundaries eighty-one minute motion picture, with a reported budget of $4.9 million, much more needs to be offered to satisfy the increasingly ravenous pallets of the average genre fanatic. This is true even with the less cinematically experienced, teenage audiences this dull, pedestrian, PG-13 rated affair is obviously catering to.
It also becomes all the more ridiculous in moments like the eye-rolling preface of this all too safe exertion. In this extended bit, Esther (in a fair turn from Lotta Losten; the star of the short this is based on) is about to leave her job at a factory late at night. Unsure if she is seeing something from the door a mere room away, she hits the light switch repeatedly. This is while the above-articulated fear tactic, wrong-headedly exposed in the movie’s trailer, flashes again and again before our eyes. In one of the first of many erroneous moves, we are not revolted by the ominous sight of Diana as Sandberg and company have obviously intended. Instead, we laugh at the absurd amount of times it takes Losten to discern if what she is seeing is real or not. Such is especially guffaw-inducing when we recognize that most people would’ve turned the lights back on once and fled immediately to safety the first time around.
Perhaps this aforementioned criticism wouldn’t be so painfully noticeable if Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer were able to give us more of an original fiction. At the least, the team could’ve indulged in more innovative plot elements along with a meatier account. Instead, Diana and those she haunts are given garden variety backstory and motivations. The personalities we encounter are all cardboard archetypes. Luckily, they are somewhat elevated by solid performances. This is especially true of Teresa Palmer’s portrayal of Rebecca. She is a stepsister to the mentally ill Sophie (in a presentation by Maria Bello that is undoubtedly skillful and gripping) and Sophie’s son, Martin (a well-done representation by Gabriel Bateman that is constrained by the commonality of Heisserer’s dim depictions). Palmer and Bateman share a palpable chemistry. It is one which makes it all too easy to see them as a pair of semi-distant relatives who are forced to rely on another unexpectedly for survival. These two are the anchor that helps keep the movie afloat. This is even as its first two acts pile on scene after scene of exposition and tired, predictable character development.
In this portion, we learn that Martin is finding himself in the tormented footsteps Rebecca endured years prior. This is with Martin falling asleep at school arriving as a telltale sign of the youth’s restless nights avoiding the nightmarish whims of Diana. After a call from a school nurse who could not reach Sophie (who is not taking her medication and becoming increasingly obsessed with Diana), Rebecca reluctantly takes Martin to her home to catch some much needed sleep. It is at this point Diana makes her presence increasingly known in Martin and Rebecca’s life. From herein, the strange noises and unnerving scratching Martin has been hearing suddenly becomes much more. It’s a simple, accustomed, but not entirely unattractive, premise. Yet, it misses nearly every opportunity it has to be anything more than a one-dimensional, strictly on the surface thriller. It doesn’t even operate satisfyingly enough as pure, mindless entertainment.
What is worse is that all of these aforesaid instances come off more as filler than an honest attempt to get its spectators to care for our young hero and elder heroine. During this time, the terror elements are, sadly, sparse. Yet, the talk is long and uninteresting. Likewise, the cringe-worthy dialogue is that of a Lifetime Movie of the Week brought to the big screen. In much the same vein, the visual effects, credited to seven individuals, are your usual sub-par, computer generated shtick. Alongside these detracting details, we realize more than ever before, how little narrative Heisserer’s dismal script actually delivers. Simultaneously, such tedium and pointless circle running creates a punishingly slow pace. It is one that only really seems to find its footing and come to life in the surprisingly energetic and tense final twenty-five minutes.
Amid this concluding stretch, Sandberg abandons the standard, point and shoot directorial style which dominated the rest of the opus. For once he seems to finally be allowing himself to have some fun with the material. Relatedly, a late sequence in a basement excellently and claustrophobically toys with the concept of finding a light source amid increasing blackness. It is an idea that is not given half as much creativity beforehand. Despite this, we are still amended many of the categorical tropes which weighed down most of the first hour. For instance, a fiendish hand reaching out from under the bed. But, it is done in a way that is still entertaining despite its familiarity. If only this sensibility was utilized earlier, Lights Out wouldn’t be such an underwhelming chore to sit through. Just as mournfully, it goes back to these disappointing origins for an end segment that is as imitative and stale as the first fifty-six minutes.
You know you are in trouble when the various rock and roll posters sprawled out on the walls of Rebecca’s home are more visceral, terrifying and immediately stimulating than any of the actual attempts at trepidation Sandberg invokes. Lights Out suffers from this affliction and much more. It is complimented by atmospheric, but unmemorable, music from Benjamin Wallfisch. Marc Spicer’s cinematography works best, like the rest of the endeavor, in the later and more moody sections. Still, it is pleasant enough. Michael Aller and Kirk M. Morri offer sharp editing. The sound and make-up department are fair. Yet, they suffer much the same results as the songs which accompany the fabrication. The same can be said for Shannon Kemp’s art direction, Lisa Son’s set decoration and Kristin M. Burke’s costume design. Alexander DiPersia as Bret, Billy Burke as Martin’s father and owner of the plant spied in the hackneyed opening arrangement, Paul, and the rest of the cast are adequate.
But, none of these comparatively brighter flashes can make up for the fact that most of the movie is a lumbering, overblown and underdeveloped mess. Why the usually reliable modern day master James Wan, who is producer of this vehicle and recently gave us the most accomplished offering of the summer with The Conjuring 2 (2016), would want to sully his good standing with having this title on his resume is beyond me. Sandberg’s effort is a forgettable, uninspired trek through the motions. All of which we have seen done much better, often by Wan himself, umpteen times before. Do yourself a favor and be sure to put the lights out on any further thoughts of seeing this for yourself. I guarantee that you will be better off that way.