You only need to go back as far as The Babadook to find an example of a horror movie grounding itself in realism, using themes such as depression and grief to both convey tropes associated with the genre and to serve as a catalyst to explore the fragility of the human mind and just how terrifying a prospect that can be. However, while the Australian production thrived in such a notion, David Sandberg’s Lights Out struggles to evoke any such emotion, being a little too irresponsible in its depiction of those suffering from mental illness.
The character in question is Sophie (Maria Bello) a mother of two, haunted by the ghost of an old friend, which has been passed unwittingly on to her daughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman). The hauntings are delivered by a malevolent being that hides in the shadows, unable to inflict any harm when the lights are on – but when they’re off, is capable of truly sinister things. Though the two children have grown accustomed to keeping the lights on at all times, darkness always lingers and the threat is always upon them, as they realise that in order to eradicate this dangerous situation, they need to begin at the source: their mother.
Lights Out remains endearingly simplistic throughout, which is refreshing to see when tied to a genre so often accused of needless complexity. The entire film stems from a very simple concept, which plays on an instinctive fear of being afraid of the dark – the idea of the unknown, never knowing what’s lurking in the shadows, a fear which so often filters into our personal lives, which heightens the impact of the scares. Sandberg has used the chief antagonist – the darkness – in an intelligent manner, as it lingers in almost every single shot. Even during the daytime there’s always a shadow somewhere, some shade in the corner of the screen, serving as a constant reminder that the antagonist could always be lurking and preventing any moments of relief, as you feel on edge throughout, fearing the villain could strike at any given moment.
Lights Out is based on a short which was well-received (and one you’ve likely stumbled across when scrolling through your Facebook news feed), which had survived from its very simple concept, whereas with a feature length production you’re always going to need more, to build a narrative, to allow character depth and development, to have a palpable structure with a beginning, middle and end – and regrettably, though undoubtedly passing the scare test (on several occasions), it’s here that this title falls short.