More noise than signal

Lights Out

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

As we go through life, we learn things from experience. This is largely why there are nearly no reviews of contemporary horror films on this podcast, as in our formative years over on theOneliner.com we sat through very nearly all of them that touched a multiplex between Y2K and about Y2K7, and our patience with the genre was rewarded with a torrent of cinematic effluent that has very much left us scarred, not through the nerve-jangling terror that their creators hope to engender, but a buttock-numbing boredom born of a million cliches recycling, slowly.

But every now and then one catches my attention, normally after a parade of people who ought to know better declare that this one’s not that bad, really, honest guv, and even more rarely I’ll actually enjoy one of the films. Lights Out, as it happens, is one of those films, although perhaps not one I enjoy strictly as a horror film.

The prologue provides an effective demonstration of the mechanics of the film. A man is working late in what appears to be a mannequin storage facility, which already could only be much creepier if it featured clowns and Victorian-era dolls. His co-worker makes to leave, but catches sight of a subtly inhuman silhouette in the darkness that disappears in the light. Suitably spooked, she warns her co-worker Paul (Billy Burke) about this. He understandably dismisses this, which turns out to be his undoing as he’s later stalked and killed by this light-averse monster.

Mourning this grizzly passing are Sophie (Maria Bello), and their son Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Indeed, it’s sent Sophie back into a spiral of depression that she’d previously been treated for. Child services get involved when Martin keeps falling asleep at school. Martin asks them to contact his sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who living alone in a cross town apartment after a rift formed between her and her mother. Martin confesses that he’s too scared to sleep at nights, with Sophie apparently talking to an imaginary friend all night and keeping the house in the dark all of the time, freaking Martin out. Rebecca, along with her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), take Martin back to his home to confront her mother, and after seeing the state she’s in, decided to allow Martin to stay with Rebecca in the hopes of him getting some sleep.

Rebecca’s convinced Sophie is just falling apart after her stepfather’s death in the same manner as she did when her father disappeared on them some years ago, however doubt starts creeping in that night when she sees that there subtly inhuman silhouette scratching something on the floor. The light dispels this, but the scratches remain, with the name “Diana” permanently ruining her chances of getting her rental deposit back. This reactivates what seems to be her suppressed childhood memories of her run-ins with this nocturnal menace. Child services also show up to return Martin to his mother, as while sympathetic and understanding, Rebecca’s history of suicide attempts doesn’t make her prime guardian material.

Convincing an understanding Bret that they need to investigate this Diana character further, they go digging through her mother’s past, particularly her time in a mental health facility, which as it turns out was what Paul was investigating at the time of his cessation. The details I shall skip over, partly to leave that discovery to the interested and partly because it’s not like it makes a lick of sense anyway, but Diana appears to be the vengeful ghost of her mother’s friend that’s obsessed with “protecting” Sophie, largely meaning protecting their bond from anyone threatening to take Sophie’s attention away from Diana.

Rebecca and Brett decide to confront Sophie about this, who initially denies this before managing to slip a note to her asking for help, and, well, the rest of the film deals with their attempts to bring about an end to this in ways that are best left unmentioned to avoid spoiling it for the interested. This, actually, is a little frustrating, as the film has so many great little moments and scenes enabled by the rules set up so effectively in the opening salvo. You’re safe in the light, you’re not in the dark. If you can get lights on somehow, even if you’re currently being hoist aloft by this supernatural irritant, she’d going to disappear without even a puff of smoke – causing you to succumb to gravity.

It helps that these lovely little vignettes are strung together by a cast that actually have some talent, with isn’t something you can rely on in this genre. It’s great to see Maria Bello again, certainly in something that’s not The 5th Wave, and her portrayal of her character’s turmoil is more nuanced and convincing than you’d normally hope for in horror films. Teresa Palmer, who impressed me in zombie comedy Warm Bodies a few years back, is a capable, dynamic and convincing lead, and Diana’s human embodiment Alicia Vela-Bailey uses her dance and acrobatic background to bring some eerie movements to the character that recalls Alien in places.

Now, if your definition of a good horror film necessarily includes it being scary, this strikes out a little, at least as far as I’m concerned. For the most part this is subverting genre tropes, mainly with characters that mostly make sensible decisions rather than doing the stupidest possible thing at all times, but it’s still bound by the genre formats and cinematic convention enough to make it a little predicable as to where the next creepiness will unfold, although it earns massive brownie points from me by not relying on loud orchestral stabs to provide jump scares. It must be said, your mileage may vary on this point – as mentioned previously, this is very far from my first time at this rodeo, and there’s only so many ways to skin this cat. Predictability aside, it at no point stopped being enjoyable, with many innovative little touches, and so is the most entertaining horror film I’ve seen in years.

So, how’s that for a debut directorial performance – and with it currently hovering around $140 million from a budget of $5 million, it certainly puts UK savings interest rates into perspective. Crucially, it deserves every cent of it, and I look forward to seeing what David F. Sandberg does next.