(2016, David F. Sandberg]
[4 out of 5 stars]
[Image courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures]
A horror movie is only as good as the audience you see it with. A crowd too quiet and a horror movie is just dull, a crowd too rowdy and it becomes too distracting. LIGHTS OUT is perfect to view amidst a boisterous crowd because even though it relies on jump scares, it’s well aware of its own cleverness and manipulation. The audience will hopefully accept and fully embrace this and begins to interact with the movie by loudly doling out advice for the doomed characters, clapping and cheering if they succeed and laughing when the situation becomes hilariously absurd.
This sounds like a nightmare for those who prefer their moviegoing experience to be less reactive but this is the kind of energy and interaction that adds to the enjoyment of a good horror film. It’s why I love going to genre screenings at film festivals. The room becomes electric.
The concept is really straightforward: a mysterious figure appears in the shadows and only disappears when a light shines on her. She’s always shot in silhouette and the sound design makes up for what we cannot see: nails scratching on wooden floors and the uncanny, guttural noises it makes. This monster, being shrouded in darkness, is much scarier than an average ghost. At least a ghost (in horror movie logic) might at least be nice. This one is not an apparition from the afterlife but from somewhere else more malevolent.
As you would expect, the filmmakers employs a number of cinematic techniques to take advantage of this monster’s one weakness, the light. There are plenty of opportunities to produce effective interplay between light and shadow and multiple light sources are cleverly utilised. An unnerving scene with a candle plays on how easily the light can be extinguished from a slight breeze. A smartphone screen is cleverly used in one moment, slyly pointing out the device’s ubiquity. But the best scene comes from the use of car headlights and it becomes a triumphant punchline causing the audience to spontaneously erupt in laughter and applause. Like the FINAL DESTINATION movies the audience anticipates the creative ways the concept is utilised in each scene and scare.
But a single concept becomes tiresome in a space of ninety minutes. What keeps LIGHTS OUT from turning into that are the relationships that anchor the drama. Martin (Gabriel Bateman) lives with his mom Sophie (Maria Bello) and becomes sleep deprived because he becomes fearful of this shadowy fiend that occupies the shadows at night. The social worker at school notices he nods off in class and calls his next of kin, his sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). Rebecca knows about the monster - it’s what pushed her away and cut off contact with their mother but now it’s affecting her younger brother Martin as well.
On a metaphorical level, the movie shares the same idea as THE BABADOOK, where the monster is a representation of mental illness. The most memorable scene is when, after a perfectly innocent mother-son movie night, the mom suddenly turns off all the lights so that Martin can meet the monster. This is where themetaphor takes a disturbing and emotionally affecting turn. Martin already knows about the monster, he hears his mum talk to her when he’s not around. He looks at her suspiciously when she talks to an unseen presence in her darkened closet.
This is what makes this monster, or this metaphor really effective because it attaches itself to someone. It’s horrific to think about because that someone might be your loved one. It preys on the same primal fears that exorcism movies play on. That this otherworldly conjuring, something out of your control or understanding, is infecting someone you love. Suddenly turning them from normal people to someone cruelly unfamiliar at a drop of a hat, or in this case, in one flick of a light switch.