Sitting in the middle of a screening of Lights Out with the lights shut off in the theater, I couldn’t help but hope that they’d turn the movie off instead…
It’s a good thing that James Wan was a producer on the film, because Lights Out feels like a complete James Wan knockoff. From the paranormal themes to the zoom-reverse-zooms, nearly every aspect of the movie seems like it’s revering and ripping off the doll-obsessed director who helmed the Insidious and Conjuring franchises. Directed by David F. Sandberg (and based off of his short film), even the concept seems like something Wan would create. Just like creepy dolls, a fear of darkness is common, but doesn’t necessarily make for an engaging narrative on its own.
So what do you do when you have a type of scare you want to use, but no narrative vehicle? Ghosts, I guess. Until further notice, we’re in a paranormal horror cycle, so that’s what we’re gonna get. So in Lights Out, there’s a ghost named Diana that feeds off of the darkness? I guess? There’s a backstory that explains why, but it’s not particularly interesting or well developed. Anyway, Diana has an attachment to a mother named Sophie (Mario Bello), and Sophie has been under much emotional duress because of this. So it’s up to Sophie’s children, Martin (Gabriel Bateman) and Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), to get rid of Diana.
When I describe it like that, it sounds a little bit like The Babadook (2014), no? From a strictly narrative perspective, I suppose there are similarities. Written by Eric Heisserer, Lights Out is missing all of the mental illness metaphors that The Babadook had. In fact, our paranormal entity has no purpose here other than to scare. Ultimately, Lights Out is devoid of any real theme or reason for existence, and it gets into a lot of problematic territory if you try to create any.
Lights Out is mostly meaningless, but it hedges its bets on being scary. It’s only a shame that the movie isn’t that scary. There are some nicely blocked moments, but for the most part, the film falls into the “hard noise; jump scare” area of horror. What this means is that the movie isn’t inherently scary, but it is constantly introducing loud noises and sharp character entrances. It’s a shock, but it’s a cheap share. This tactic makes the film much less frightening and much more annoying. It’s not trying to lead the audience on a journey. It’s just attacking them.
What’s so frustrating about this is that the general concept lends itself to some really cool ideas. Because Lights Out is centered around this fear of the dark, there could have been lots of exciting moments related to perception. Making a movie means that you are inherently manipulating the audience, so there could have been stronger choices related to not only what the characters are seeing, but what the audience is seeing. Instead, the film settles for bland aesthetic choices and a general lack of spatial awareness.
What makes any good horror movie scary is the audience’s loss of control. The audience is watching, but they have no impact on what happens. That’s what creates the tension and anticipation. But when it doesn’t seem like anyone is in control of what’s going on, the movie loses realism, and the audience loses attachment.
At 81 minutes, Lights Out isn’t particularly long. The structure seems to be lacking, so it feels like the story is missing some extra layer to make it more cohesive. The characters don’t seem to grow, which doesn’t help. The performances are okay, and the on-set action is underwhelming, but the movie is so short that there’s no real reason to complain. It doesn’t feel like a fully polished feature film, but it’s not hard to watch. If anything, it just has a lot of wasted potential. Maybe keep the lights on for this one.