If you’re anything like me, horror isn’t your friend. Gory blood scenes, creepy dolls, supernatural premonitions and shameless jump scares. It’s all the same formula but it still gets you. Every single time.
David F. Sandberg’s directorial debut in Lights Out, produced by James Wan (The Conjuring, Saw, Insidious), seems like just another cinematic formula. It’s based on a woman alone in her apartment who sees an eerie figure appear in the dark; and when the lights go on, the figure disappears.
At first a viral 3-minute short, Sandberg’s feature film turns into a smart, tasteful story focused more on familial relations and survival than it does on jump scares.
We open the film inside of the gloomy textile factory of Paul (Billy Burke). One of the late night workers (Laura Losten) prepares to lockup until she sees a figure appearing when the lights go out. Frightened, she warns Paul and goes home.
It is here where we learn that you are initially safe in the light, but as long as the lights are off, have fun trying to keep them on.
Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is the rebellious twenty-something stepdaughter to Paul who left her mentally-ill mother Sophie (Maria Bello) to live in an apartment above a tattoo shop in downtown L.A. When her 10-year-old step-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) has trouble sleeping at night due to his mother’s late night confrontations with her imaginary friend Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), Rebecca attempts to mother Martin with her sweet, earnest boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia).
The sweetness of the brother-sister relationship is shown well here. When Martin’s concerned school counselor reaches out to Rebecca, we learn that Rebecca initially left home because of her own father who left the family years ago. She finds her mother too unstable to take after Martin so she takes him under her wing. The tension that forms between mother-daughter as Rebecca picks at her mother’s history with Diana — the sinister, glowey-eyed spider-like figure whose scratching and shadowy appearances continue to haunt her family — lets us see how unnervingly real and heartbreaking it is to see your own parent lose control, right before your eyes.
There isn’t too much time spent on unraveling these characters before getting into the heart of the jump scares and adrenaline-inducing thrills. What makes this different from most horror films is that it seems almost real. There isn’t any crazy supernatural story boding over their lives or paranormal activity. These kids are dealing with their troubled mother who just can’t seem to abandon her imaginary friend. And rather than spend too much time looking into the case files or backstories, we are flung right into the heart of the action as the kids attempt to stay home with their mother and deal with Diana in the way they know best — lighting all the candles, opening curtains and trying to keep all the lights on in sheer desperation.
The few moments of dialogue shared are short and sweet. The moments inhabiting spaces in the house are incredibly immersive. And the cast of characters works well to keep us interested — they are all good, relatable characters who continually feel for and look out for each other.
Palmer deals with her role in a way that isn’t scream queen or excessively serious, but rather natural, realistic and very much in touch with her character; Bello plays the hauntingly distant, distracted and distraught mother who generally wants what’s best for her family well; Bateman’s boyish innocence and concern for his mother is widely felt; and DiPersia as the sweet, doofus boyfriend who is continually at Rebecca’s side doesn’t feel trite or exhausted, but rather entertaining and relatable.
While moments of silence and prolonged camera rolls make me turn away and squint before I hear another thundering shriek to calmly return my eyes to the screen, the movie sat well with me.
Palmer, who was previously seen in Warm Bodies (and that one 80s nostalgia flick Take Me Home Tonight) makes for an appealing and completely relatable heroine, whose wide-eyed blue eyes and cool girl alt-goth look let us truly see and feel the fear in her eyes (and the story of her being drawn back from her independence into her family feels all too real for the modern millennial). Bateman’s reactions were great as well, as in the tense moment he shares with his mom as she frantically turns out the lights, holds him down and insists to him that Diana means no harm as she lingers overhead and attempts to swarm him.
These characters are entirely believable, given the circumstances, as it is comfortably creepy and entertaining enough to make for a great scare. Who can complain about Halloween in July?
“Lights Out” is set to release nationwide July 22.