Movie Review: Lights Out

A ghost (only) in the darkness: stay in the light to survive in this brisk horror outing

Lights Out


Directed by David F. Sandberg. Starring Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Emily Alyn Lind, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Gabriel Bateman, Lotta Losten. Written by Eric Heisserer.

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Nifty premise for a horror film: a monster that exists only in the dark, in the shadows. Turn the lights out, and it’s there, turn them on, and it’s gone.

In Lights Out, the shadows are those special movie-only zones in-between puddles of light. In real life, a standard lamp provides enough light to illuminate an entire room; here, they’re only enough to create small, cylindrical zones of light in a sea of complete darkness.

So you have areas of light and dark, a ghost-monster in the dark spots, and characters attempting to leap between them and navigate through the dark without getting killed with a candle or wind-up flashlight or other dubious device that only illuminates a small area directly in front of them.

The rules of the game are pretty clear, and for the most part, Light Out is a sufficient horror movie when not drowning us in backstory.

Ah, the modern supernatural movie backstory. Ever since The Ring set the current template (though Poltergeist did roughly the same thing twenty years prior), every Hollywood ghost story invokes two rules regarding how to deal with the supernatural (and set the course of the film’s plot).

First, the characters must become Scooby Doo detectives and uncover the ghost’s mysterious background. Second, they must use that information to defeat said ghost. Somehow.

In Lights Out, that backstory is pretty silly, and exactly how the characters plan to use it to triumph is unclear and abruptly handled. The film suffers whenever the characters aren’t scrambling around in the dark.

Those characters include Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), her it’s-complicated boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), and Rebecca’s 10-year-old half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Martin has his school nurse phone Rebecca after he keeps falling asleep in class and Mom won’t answer.

Mom is played by a strung-out Maria Bello, and it’s immediately apparent that something’s up when she’s whispering in the dark to the mysterious ‘Diane’ and keeping her son awake all night after the mysterious death of his father.

Bello and (especially) Palmer are pretty good horror-movie protagonists, and there are also some great testy mother-daughter vibes between them; one almost wishes the movie spent more time developing their backstory than that of the mysterious Diane.

Lights Out runs a brisk 75-minutes minus closing credits, and when even that feels too long it’s apparent there are some issues at the script level; the project began as an effective no-budget 2.5-minute short film, padded out to feature length with some flimsy ghost story formula.

But when the characters are flicking on and off the light switch, and that barely-illuminated figure moves in the shadows, it’s clear that director David Sandberg knows what he’s doing. As a quick and effective little chiller, you could do far worse than Lights Out

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