Mark Reviews Movies

Lights Out


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: David F. Sandberg

Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material and brief drug content)

Running Time: 1:21

Release Date: 7/22/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 21, 2016

Almost every horror movie monster/killer/ghost/demon/other such thing has an origin story and/or gimmick that cannot stand up to minimal scrutiny. Take the thing in Lights Out, which appears to be the ghost of a woman with a rare physical disorder that prevented her from being exposed to light. Her ghost suffers from the same affliction. It must also be noted that the thing may likely be something else entirely different from a ghost, although that shift comes only when it's convenient for the story.

Both options are inherently ludicrous. If it's a ghost, it seems cosmically unfair that a person should have the same condition in the spirit realm as he or she did in the temporal one, and we haven't even gotten to the peculiar case of how this thing ended up a ghost in the first place. If it's the other option, it opens up an entirely different can of metaphysical worms about some kind of literal psychological projection.

Neither option makes sense on its own, and on a basic level, the particulars of each one seem to negate those of the other. There's a more important consideration than any of this, though: None of this stuff really matters.

Yes, the back story of this horrific thing is laughable when it's simply suggested. The explanation makes even less sense when the details are doled out in a flashback sequence, complete with a narration that explains the hunch about what happened to the woman is correct. In a way, one has to appreciate that screenwriter Eric Heisserer is willing to take such a leap into the absurd, if only for the fact that it shows how effective the rest of the film is in creating a genuinely suspenseful atmosphere and a surprisingly sensitive story out of a monster this preposterous.

Those two aspects of the film are what matter. They're helped immensely by performances that take the threat and the drama seriously, even as director David F. Sandberg (whose short film this one is based on) has fun in exploring and playing with the rules of this otherworldly creature. The combination works. The film establishes just enough of a connection to these characters that the scare sequences possess some dramatic stakes, and Sandberg and Heisserer are consistent in applying the rules of the monster, while still offering enough clever variations within those rules to keep those sequences from becoming static or predictable.

The story opens on a familiar note, with the death of an anonymous character (played by Billy Burke) at the clawed hands of the monster in an atmospheric locale—in this case, a massive warehouse. It's a sequence that's particularly effective in the way it clearly and succinctly establishes the characteristics of and rules surrounding this creature (By the way, the entire film is a concise 81 minutes, including credits).

Someone turns off a light in a room, and the silhouetted figure of the monster appears. When there's light, the shadow disappears, and the process repeats itself, until the thing instantly moves closer. Rows of giant lights, activated by a motion sensor, hang from the ceiling and illuminate equidistant circles of light on the floor with spaces of darkness in between them. The monster is stuck in the darkened areas of the floor, and yes, that motion sensor becomes really important to the way Sandberg builds the tension of the scene. The eventual victim and, by extension, we get the idea pretty quickly: This creature is confined to the darkness.

The plot involves the surviving family members of the man who ends up a bloody, tangled mess on the floor of the warehouse. The man's wife Sophie (Maria Bello), who has suffered from mental health issues for most of her life, is left alone to raise their young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), Sophie's adult daughter from a previous marriage, lives on her own. She has distanced herself from her mother and keeps everyone, including her adoring boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), at a distance. After Martin is terrorized by the thing that killed his father, he seeks his half-sister's help. She has experience with the thing scaring her little brother.

There's not much to these characters, but nonetheless, these are solid performances within material that needs them. Palmer in particular holds much of the film's emotional weight, as Rebecca wrestles with the pain of an absentee father leading to the guilt of being absent from her own family.

The family dynamic is a solid foundation to a story that—let's face it—only exists to go from one sequence of the creature threatening these characters to the next. In that department, Sandberg offers a series of sequences that essentially repeat the neat premise of the monster, although they never feel like repetition.

There's something slightly different in each one, such as the way the creature appears and disappears against the timed flickering of a neon light outside a window or how we quickly realize that the thing can hide in darkened places in a fully lit room. The film's extended climax is particularly inventive in the way it tosses new hiccups and solutions (and hiccups within those solutions) into the mix. A blacklight, for example, might illuminate a room but perhaps not in the right way. It's also refreshing that these characters are smart enough to, say, quick-draw a cellphone at the right moment.

The concept behind the monster becomes a little too muddled, attempting to turn it into a metaphor without bothering to do the work to get there. Is it really necessary, though, that we know what a horror-movie monster is? Isn't how it does its scary business what really matters? Lights Out delivers on the how.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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