By: Heather Seebach
It is no wonder the horror genre is taken less seriously than most, as Hollywood churns out one half-assed horror film after another. Most are remakes or uninspired sequels, and they are plagued by tired jump scares and CGI ghosts with gaping maws. The genre has become so monotonous that the films making a sincere effort often go unseen amidst the garbage.
The best hope for a movie like that is to slap a household name on it - in this case, that name is James Wan. I am a fan of Wan's work but he is not the reason I saw Lights Out. What attracted me to this one was knowing the short film of the same name upon which it is based, and the fact that the director of said short, David F. Sandberg, was brought on-board to direct the feature adaptation. If nothing else, I love when newcomers are given a chance to break into the industry and potentially breathe new life into the horror genre.
With his feature directorial debut, Sandberg does not break the mold (yet) but what Lights Out does deliver is a satisfying spookfest with a surprisingly solid story. The film follows a brother and sister (Gabriel Bateman, Teresa Palmer) who discover that their mother's mental illness may in fact be something far more sinister, as a creepy entity stalks the family. Sandberg and screenwriter Eric Heisserer expand quite a lot upon the short film, which had very little story. They turned a one-off concept into a full-fledged tale rather than the lazy after-thought it could have been. They also refrain from recycling everything that made the short so memorable, which is admirable.
The scares are simple and follow the old "less is more" adage, employing shadows, sound effects, and just a bit of makeup fx. It makes clever use of lights, as the menace of the film is restricted to the darkness. The shadowy creature, known simply as "Diana", is equal parts animalistic and manipulative, making her a formidable villain. Even someone as bored of paranormal films as me found myself double-taking at shadows while writing this review.
While the scares will satisfy filmgoers looking to jump and scream, the more memorable aspect of Lights Out is its screenplay that ties the supernatural into real-life issues like mental illness and domestic abuse. As the rattled mother battling grief and depression, Maria Bello is fantastic and provides some of the film's more genuinely scary moments in ways you might not expect. The relationship between mother and daughter (Palmer) also feels sincere, right down to how alike they look - damn, that's some good casting! Seriously, though, the family dynamic is believable and it is rare to find a paranormal horror film that bothers so much with expanding its characters. They are not simply fodder for a pissed-off poltergeist, but rather human beings with real-world problems bigger than the creepy dead lady in the house.
Do not be fooled by generic trailers: Lights Out has more to offer than your average spookfest. Much like Wan's horror efforts, it is a film that respects its characters and is not overly reliant on cheap, piano-note scares. Sandberg has already been tapped to helm the Annabelle sequel, which concerns me, as there is this trend of latching up-and-comers onto crap sequels (e.g., See No Evil 2, Sinister 2) but I still hope it will be a springboard to seeing what else he can do.