Director: David F. Sandberg
Writer(s): Eric Heisserer
Studio/Distributor: Warner Bros.
Box Office: $148.9m
Release Date: 22 July, 2016
IMDb Rating: 6.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
UK Blu Ray release? Yes
Teresa Palmer – Rebecca
Gabriel Bateman – Martin
Alexander DiPersia – Bret
Billy Burke – Paul
Maria Bello – Sophie
Alicia Vela-Bailey – Diana
Lotta Losten – Esther
Plot According to IMDb
Rebecca must unlock the terror behind her little brother’s experiences that once tested her sanity, bringing her face to face with an entity attached to their mother.
It’s every filmmaker’s dream to have your debut feature film produced by James Wan based solely on the strength of your two-minute short film. It’s also a big ask: having never stepped on a professional film set before, David F. Sandberg was tasked with maintaining the suspense of his short film for a feature length. Though it comes in at a relatively short 81 minutes, Lights Out is an impressive debut that paves a promising path for this sophomore filmmaker.
The opening sequence sets the events of the film in motion with the death of Paul at the hands of the creepy figure that lurks in the shadows. This sequence utilises the ‘On/Off’ set piece that we saw in the original short film, the trick that was effective in the short film but could easily wear thin. This sequence is still effective and scary, but the good thing about seeing it so soon in the film is that it doesn’t become a gimmick; we’re not relying on it to be the sole basis of the film’s scares. It’s like the short film is being repeated in the opening sequence, and now we’ve seen it, Sandberg has the rest of the film to show us something new.
For its short run time, the film could have surpassed character in favour of the thrills that many ticket buyers would’ve come for. Thankfully, it doesn’t. After the initial opening set piece, the filmmakers take their time to introduce us to Rebecca, her mother Sophie and Martin, her half-brother, all relatives of the recently deceased of the first few minutes. The relationship is fractured, with a history of mental illness coursing through the family’s strife. It’s this element that thematically influences the events of the film, and though it was met with some controversy upon release, it sets the film apart from other others in the genre.
Despite the opener, we’re initially led to believe through the eyes of Rebecca that her Mother’s mental health is affecting Martin, leaving Rebecca no choice but to take him into her care. His stories of the creaking creature in the dark convince Rebecca of her Mother’s issues, but when the scratching starts in her house and she’s confronted by an unknown malevolence, she delves deeper into her Mother’s past…
Mario Bello gives a standout performance as Sophie. Her dishevelled appearance and nervous ticks really set you on edge as you watch the shadows for a sign of her manifestation. The backstory of Sophie and Diana, the creaking woman in the dark, is quickly explained through photographs and a scratchy doctor’s recording of a session with Diana that goes some way to explaining her connection to Sophie and her reason for lurking in the dark.
It’s a clever move to explain it so early on, but when you consider it, it’s not something to really save for a big reveal. The explanation is somewhat warranted; for the short film, the mystery is intriguing, but in expanding it in to a feature film, there has to be a sufficient reason as to why this entity thrives in the dark, and so the shocking explanation compliments rather than confounds her mystery.
The beauty of the film is the way in which it plays on our primordial fear of the dark and the belief that we are safer in the light. The sequence in Rebecca’s bedroom where Diana’s appearance comes as the harsh UV light outside Rebecca’s bedroom flickers on and off is sublime, a white knuckle brace for her to reach the light switch only meters away.
Her appearances are always varied and are never limited to gimmicks, but it’s not until just over the hour mark that we see her face for the first time, quickly realising that what has provided the scares for the past hour has been nothing more than an outline. It’s this use of light (or rather, lack of it) coupled with sound that Sandberg utilises to maximum effect, eschewing the confidence of a seasoned horror pro.
The tragic ending courted most of the controversy, and whilst its relation to mental health is evident and thus the criticism understandable, it’s still a shocking ending. In true horror fashion, there’s no real winner. Diana is defeated at a cost, and the family are left to pick up the pieces… with the lights on.
Inertia’s Ideal Score (★ out of 5)
- Teresa Palmer hadn’t seen the design of Diana before filming, in order to provoke a genuine reaction
- The film made back its entire production budget on its opening day
- Lotta Losten, the star of the original short, makes an appearance in this film
- On the wall in Rebecca’s bedroom, a poster reads ‘Släckt’, which is Swedish for ‘Lights Out’
DOCTOR: You’re getting too attached to Sophie.
TEEN DIANA: She’s my friend.
DOCTOR: Well, if that’s true, why did you hurt her?
TEEN DIANA: She was getting better.
DIANA: Keep the lights out.
Tomorrow: Night #7 – The Blair Witch Project (1999)