Several years ago, there was a short film on YouTube with the premise of a creature that would disappear when the lights were on. It was a sensation on the video web site. Taking that concept, they expanded it to a 90 minute film. Was that a mistake? There were plenty of concerns that the idea of the short would feel too stretched out by trying to have it go a full movie.
I am pleased to say that those concerns should be dismissed. Lights Out not only does not feel stretched out, it was a remarkably frightening time at the theater.
Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is not sleeping. He is too afraid to sleep because his mother (Maria Bello) is talking to some mysterious female creature named Diana, who only can be around when the lights are out. When Martin starts to fall asleep in school, they tried, unsuccessfully, to call his mother. Instead, they called his half-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who was estranged from the family, but she knew what was happening…because it had already happened to her.
Lights Out is a fantastic film, with tension and suspense from the early scenes right up until the finale. The key aspect of this movie is they focus on characters. We spend some time getting to know Rebecca. We learn back story involving her mother. We see how these things cause stress and worry for a really strong little boy in Martin. We even get a look at Rebecca’s “boyfriend” Bret (Alexander DiPersia). All of this character development really pays off when these characters are placed in peril later in the film because, unlike a lot of these types of films, we care for what happens to them. They are not disposable victims for the creature to kill. They are well imagined and real, engaging characters.
The film does contain its share of jump scares, but they seem to do a good job of maintaining the tone of the film and they create serious tension. And since the characters are important to us, these jump scares do not stand out as blatantly as they might in a lesser film.
Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) is very frightening, with her moving int he shadows and only seeing her apparition. It is less effective later when we see more than just the shadowy figure. I enjoyed her back story and her connection to Sophie the mother felt very tragic, as if the life of Sophie had been forever tarnished by this ghost.
Gabriel Bateman (who is on CBS’ American Gothic) is amazing here. Again, everything is resting on this child actor providing the audience with the sufficient fear without being over-the-top. If this child was not a solid actor, the film would drop off the map. Fortunately, Bateman was outstanding, playing several levels at the beginning, shouldering the fear all to himself, not only out of need, but out of guilt. He knew he had to support his mother and he couldn’t just run away. Then, the bond he formed with his wayward half-sister was wonderful.
I also enjoyed Bret quite a bit. He was anything but the cliched horror movie boyfriend. He was funny, very supportive, and heroic. Because I liked him so much, I was very worried that he would fall victim to Diana.
However, though the typical cliches are in the film, Lights Out actually turns them around, successfully deconstructing them in the process. There are several examples of this, but I don’t want to spoil it. Let’s just say that the kids do not do the typical stupid things. They react like real people would react, and that was refreshing.
Now, the film does change the rules about Diana later in the movie, which was done simply because they needed certain things to happen, but the change is not a major one, and does actually continue t amp up the suspense. Still, some of the parts later in the film with Diana were the weakest sections of the film.
Lights Out was a really good time, if you enjoy being frightened. This film had some really solid scares and some good performances by solid actors. The time used on the characters was time well spent and made us care about what happened to these people. Lights Out is one of the best horror movies of the year so far.