When I first saw the trailer for David F. Sandberg's Lights Out, I did a double take. "Wait, is that what I think it is?" I muttered to myself as I watch the preview, both surprised and delighted by what I was seeing on the screen. To understand why I had this reaction, we have to go back a few years. It was October, and in my sophomore year theatre class, our teacher had decided that we would incorporate some spooky stories and videos throughout the lesson plans for the month. When we walked in one day, he fired up "Lights Out," a little short film that was no more than three or four minutes in length. None of us really thought anything of it at first, but as it progressed, everybody in the room started to get more and more tense. We kept thinking that it would be a prank, and yet, that definitely never happened. The short film ended with a horrifying bang, causing several people to let out a shriek. I'm pretty sure I laughed with glee when it was over, but there was no question that the film was nothing short of terrifying.
So when I heard that Sandberg was turning his chilling short into a full-length motion picture, I was overjoyed. Sandberg did in three minutes what most horror filmmakers can't do in 90, so I could only imagine what he would be able to do with an extended runtime and a more developed concept. Every trailer for Lights Out played really well with audiences, and I was ready for Sandberg to deliver something really special. Well, it's safe to say that it didn't quite pan out like I had hoped. Even with a bigger budget, some very solid actors, and a cool concept, Sandberg's extended version of Lights Out is a flat-out disappointment. In fact, I would say that it's significantly less scary than the original short. Sandberg is great at generating scares, but in pretty much every other department, this breakout horror hit is a total letdown.
Maybe part of it has to do with fear of the unknown. The short film is completely wordless, relying only on visuals and sound cues to tell its story. The monster is never explained and the ending is left ambiguous. In the full-length version, Sandberg is naturally forced to tell a story where more things are explained. Lights Out centers around Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a twenty-something who lives above a tattoo parlor by herself. She's hesitant to commit with her boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) and she maintains a contentious relationship with her mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). Rebecca is forced to step up when her younger step-brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), begins to tell her about their mother's slightly insane actions.
She has severe mental issues, ignores her responsibilities, and most importantly, she's spending a lot of time with Diana. Who's Diana? Well, it turns out that she's a former friend who is now haunting her family. Diana and Sophie spent time in a mental institution together, and through her manipulative techniques, Diana managed to latch onto Sophie's soul and convince her that she was a friend. And now, she appears in the nightmares of Rebecca and Martin, while simultaneously popping up wherever there's darkness. She feeds off of the darkness, and is crippled by the light. With a malevolent spirit tearing their family apart, Rebecca and Martin will be forced to dig further into their mother's past in order to find a way to destroy Diana once and for all.
Everybody's afraid of the dark. That's just human nature. Whether you're 6 or 65, I think there's always a little bit of fear about what might be lingering around the corner. Part of the brilliance of Sandberg's concept is that it feeds off this universal phobia. If this film had been purely about what lingers in the pitch-black darkness, I feel like it would have been pretty scary. But with the full story in Lights Out, Sandberg has made something so specific and so well-explained that the sheer terror of the concept is slightly negated. So much of Lights Out is devoted to explaining a scenario that was already pretty terrifying to begin with. Knowing the background of Diana doesn't make her scary. Actually it's quite the opposite. As Lights Out delved further and further into character details and origin stories, I felt like the momentum was sucked out of the film.
As I watched the film progress, I started to wonder why Sandberg was insistent on spending so much time on building the character and motive of Diana, who is nothing more than a shadow that never speaks. I never found the answer, but it's a problem that runs throughout the entire film. Large chunks are devoid of scares completely, focused instead on developing the relationships between our principal players. For a film that runs only 81 minutes long, it's a baffling choice and a total miscalculation. Good characters are an important part of horror films, but here, the emotional moments feel forced and out-of-place. And honestly, it doesn't help that none of the characters are particularly compelling or smart. They all make really dumb, ridiculous choices, and that hurts the whole empathy thing that the film is definitely striving for. Performances are fine, but Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, and Gabriel Bateman are certainly hindered by the lackluster script.
So the script is over-complicated and mostly dull, the characters aren't that interesting, and the villain is diminished by over-explanation. With all that said, what does Lights Out offer horror viewers? Well, it is still decently scary, led by some expertly crafted scenes of tension that will certainly put audiences on edge. Sandberg has a good eye for how to stage a scary moment, and there are some scenes in this that reminded me of the skillful horror films of James Wan (who is a producer here). The film looks and sounds great, with brilliant cinematography from Marc Spicer and excellent sound design. And most of all, the conclusion is very well-done, pumping up the scare factor and delivering a crowd-pleasing sequence that will certainly play like gangbusters.
But after watching Lights Out, I couldn't get the taste of disappointment out of my mouth. It's an okay film, but frankly, the short was scarier. Sandberg's full-length version features lots of jolts, jumps, and creepy moments, but it never has that remarkable quality of fear to it that elevates a horror film to greatness. Sandberg seems intent on scaring audiences, and yet, he never leaves you with a sense of uneasiness. To put it in simpler terms, watching Lights Out won't make you go home and turn all the lights on. It won't keep you up at night, hoping that there's not a clear-eyed monster waiting by your bedside. It won't linger in your mind. This film would be a bummer even if I hadn't seen the short film. But with that three minute masterpiece in mind, Lights Out it just stung a little bit more.
THE FINAL GRADE: C+ (6.1/10)
Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo