Lights Out has enjoyed a very effective promotional run thanks to one very clever and creepy visual trick. You turn the lights off and see something lurking in the dark. You flip the switch on and it’s gone. Maybe you were just seeing things? Perhaps, but then you turn the lights off and spot it again. It’s a brilliant simple scare because who hasn’t seen something at night and rushed to turn on the lights? However, one fantastic scare tactic definitely doesn’t guarantee a strong feature film so the big question is, “Is Lights Out one big gimmick or do director David F. Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer find a way to adapt Sandberg’s short film that warrants a full feature narrative without ruining the chilling simplicity of the signature ‘lights out’ scare?” The answer is a resoundingly the latter.
Teresa Palmer stars as Rebecca. She’s living alone and we quickly come to learn that there’s some serious friction between Rebecca and her mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), and it ultimately drove Rebecca away from the family home. However, when her young brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) stops sleeping at night, Rebecca is the only one who understands what he’s going through so she must return, face her mother and get some answers in hopes of keeping Martin free and clear of danger when the lights go out.
Lights Out is essentially a consistent blend of scare-heavy horror and family drama, and while that pairing isn’t perfectly on point from start to finish, it’s certainly well done enough to make Lights Out a very satisfying experience on multiple levels. Palmer makes for an excellent lead, playing a major role in ensuring the horror and drama co-exist – rather than getting one and then the other. At the start there’s an appealing calm to Rebecca. She’s clearly got idiosyncrasies and flaws, but exudes confidence and control, and that’s a quality that Palmer uses to great effect throughout the film. She quickly establishes Rebecca as a worthy anchor, so seeing her composure crack further intensifies the set pieces.
Lights Out is absolutely packed with jump scares, but they’re the best kind because, one, the characters experiencing them are ones you actually care about, and two, the story truly calls for them. But of course, simply having characters turn the lights on and off the whole movie would grow tiresome and that’s where the Lights Out mythology comes in handy. Heisserer weaves in a backstory for the figure lurking in the dark, and it actually winds up bringing the scares to another level and making them far more dynamic than expected. Heisserer does fall into the trap of over-explaining and even resorts to a case file exposition dump at one point, but the details are necessary and eerie enough that he gets away with it. But it is unfortunate that he couldn’t get all of that information across in a more creative and engaging way.
Otherwise, Lights Out boasts a good deal of humanity, nuance and cast chemistry, all of which contribute to making it a standout horror film. Similar to Palmer, Bateman sets up the basics for Martin early on, which makes him exciting to track as we make our way through the film. He’s kind, bright and shares some similar qualities to Rebecca, making them a strong team, but he most certainly has a mind of his own and that’s something that winds up pushing both characters in unexpected directions. Bello is also a fascinating anomaly as Sophie. There’s a hint of melodrama to the performance, but for the most part, Bello’s unhinged and manic work infuses the film with an escalating, uneasy kind of terror, and that’s something that winds up making a great balance to the “lights out” type of scare.
The surprise standout on the roster is Alexander DiPersia as Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret. About halfway through his first scene I pegged him as the cliche bad boy boyfriend and even suspected that might be his one and only scene in the entire film, but not only does Bret stick around, he grows on you big time. Similar to his on-screen relationship with Rebecca, Bret’s persistence pays off and he winds up becoming one of the most charming and delightful parts of the movie.
Lights Out marks an excellent first feature for Sandberg. He easily could have leaned on the clever scare that got the short film so much attention, but with a strong assist from Heisserer and a thorough understanding of what he needed from his cast and what he needed to achieve through his visuals – most notably the way he naturally draws your attention to the presence of light – Sandberg successfully creates a high quality, wide appeal horror movie that’ll make you think twice before turning out the light.