Directed by David F. Sandberg
Starring Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Alicia Vela-Bailey
Released on July 22, 2016
Running time: 1h 21m
By the time 2013 had gotten underway, the Internet had already been inundated with an inordinate amount of various amateur scary stories and urban legends, such as Slender Man and Jeff the Killer and Smile Dog. Aspiring writers published their assorted works all over the Internet. Most of these were compiled onto the Creepypasta site, where many aspiring writers publish their short horror stories to this day. They still span the entire spectrum from inept to laudable.
On October 31st, 2013, YouTuber CreepsMcPasta posted a video of him reading a creepypasta that he wrote himself called “The Abstergo Man”. It was about a guy dealing with being stalked by a malevolent, scary-looking spirit that is only seen in the dark and disappears when the lights come on. It’s a brilliant idea that was decently creepy in its execution, and though his storywriting is clearly amateur, CreepsMcPasta did pretty damn good for only being a YouTuber who posts videos of himself reading creepypastas.
Then, on December 30th, 2013, David Sandberg premiered a two-and-a-half-minute short film that he and his wife created called Lights Out at the “Who’s There?” short horror film competition. Though the short film was indeed pretty scary for only two and a half minutes, it hit nearly every note that “The Abstergo Man” did. It felt almost like a carbon copy, save for its incredibly short length and switching the genders of both main character and spirit. I’m not accusing Sandberg of plagiarism, because not only was Lights Out released just barely shy of two months after “The Abstergo Man”, but if he did copy “The Abstergo Man”, Lights Out is arguably different enough to fall under fair use. Plus, I’m not sure if David Sandberg even knew who CreepsMcPasta was while he was over in Sweden.
Though CreepsMcPasta at least had a story to tell, it was Sandberg who received offer after offer to make his short into a full-length film. And after much deliberation, the movie got made about two and a half years after the short premiered.
When I saw the trailers for it, I was very disappointed and put off, as according to the trailer, not only did it give away practically every single detail about the plot except how the movie ended, but the movie would be Jumpscare Central.
Then I finally had the opportunity to see it. And when I did so, I discovered, to my utter surprise…I was absolutely right. On both counts.
Our story begins in some sort of factory in which we see a ton of mannequins standing around and clothes on hangers. Some of the mannequins are in various states of dress. I wish we could have seen some extreme mannequin manipulation action, but I didn’t find it here. Anyway, a dad is calling his son Martin (Bateman). They exchange a few words about the mother’s deteriorating mental state. She’s been “talking to herself”. The dad promises that he’ll be home soon and will get his mother better. You can tell from this conversation this dad is a goner. He’ll be dead in a few minutes. The two say goodbye. Dad’s employee Esther (Lotta Losten, David Sandberg’s wife and star of their short film. She’s even wearing the same shirt she did in the short! And her part in the film is even smaller than her part in the short) tells Dad that she’s clocking out, and starts locking up. She’s in the process of finishing up a bit of inventory when the lights go out. She waves her arms around, the motion sensor picks it up, and the lights turn back on. But a rack of clothes is shaking like someone just shuffled through it. Odd. She goes into the back room and turns off the light. And just like in the short film, a ghost (Vela-Bailey) appears. She’s been changed around. Rather than being naked, she’s simply just a silhouette. And like in the short film, Esther’s curiosity causes her to experiment with the light five times. On the fifth, the ghost appears right in front of her. This moment in the short was accompanied by a quiet jump, but in the movie, eff that! Jumpscare!
BRICK TAMLAND: LOUD NOISES!
Esther turns the light back on, and the obvious nod to the short film stops. The movie’s only eighty minutes; gotta introduce us to the ghost’s mechanics somehow. Esther goes back into Dad’s office, interrupting him in the middle of a phone call. Esther tells him that there’s something weird in the back room, but he dismisses it, telling her to go on home. Esther does so, and we never see her again. I’m amazed she gets out of the building unscathed. I presume the rest of the short film plays out back at her place. The dad ends his call and decides to head home. He walks through his factory, keys in hand, before he hears a clattering in the distance. Don’t go and investigate. He turns two corners and sees the shadow person just beyond two lights away from him. Thinking it’s Esther, he calls her name. But with a crackling sound, the ghost stands up. She’s a living shadow monster with wild hair, long, sinewy limbs, a spidery gait, and an almost feral, animalistic physicality. She could have been really freaking creepy had she been properly handled by the story she inhabits. Unfortunately, she’s not. Also, I love how these lights in the building only illuminate a perfect circle and that everything outside these circles are in total darkness. Lights don’t work that way. The lights flick off, Dad waves his arms around, the sensor picks it up, and the lights turn back on. And the ghost is one light closer! He turns around and is startled. The camera cuts to his face and then back to the corridor to show that the ghost has disappeared! Unnerved, the dad runs off, but trips. He stands up and looks at his leg, which has been badly cut. He looks up and sees that the ghost is only one light away. The dad quickly gets the point. The ghost can’t come any farther because of the light. But why can’t the ghost just walk around it? Wouldn’t it be scarier if the ghost ran off to the side and we didn’t know where she was? The dad makes a run for his office, makes it, shuts the door, turns on the lights, and grabs a baseball bat that he just so happened to have on a shelf. By the way, on the shelf below it, there’s a little doll of the ghost from the short film. The lights in the factory go out, and a few seconds later, so do the ones in Dad’s office. Dang it. And the movie actually does the next jumpscare pretty well. The doorknob slightly rattles, unlocks, and opens. A few seconds of silence later, the ghost blindsides him from behind and drags him into the darkness. Out in the factory, he plops onto the floor, having been brutally mauled to death. This warrants the film’s PG-13 rating. Nothing else does, by the way. And then, title sequence.
That was the first five minutes. And to be honest, the first five minutes of this film are easily the best and scariest part of the movie. I’m not gonna lie, it was actually pretty creepy. The director did a pretty good job of building some solid tension with a legitimate sense of unease. If only the rest of the movie was this well done and actually scary. Also, another problem – it felt like it was just another iteration of the short film.
Cut to a couple in a crappy apartment on a bed after sex. This is Becca (Palmer) (oh my gosh, that’s why she was so familiar! She was Six from I Am Number Four!) and Bret (DiPersia). Becca is our main character: she listens to trashy, hard metal music, has a bunch of scary posters all over her apartment, and has nonmarital sex with someone she doesn’t even consider a boyfriend yet. Hey, they’re two consenting adults; I’m not going to stop them. Becca takes a shower. Question: do girls always put their towels on before exiting the shower, or did this just happen so the director could avoid redoing the shot to avoid nudity? I’m not sure he would mind showing Teresa Palmer’s boobs (I wouldn’t mind either), but it would have gotten the movie an R rating. Yes, shoehorn all sorts of violence into a movie and it’ll get a PG-13, but show a boobie and it’ll get rated R. Becca gently kicks Bret out of her apartment. The two clearly have something going on between them. But I really don’t care.
After a decent transition shot over two individual copies of a photo of Becca and Martin, the next scene shows Martin in bed, hearing a muffled conversation that his mother Sophie (Bello, the best actor in the movie) seems to be having with herself. And the movie clearly tells us that this is a scare sequence. Two in the first fifteen minutes? After checking on his mother, who kindly tells him to go to bed, he exits his mom’s room and heads back to his own. He turns around to see his mother in the dark doorway. A shadowy hand and part of a head peek into the doorway, scaring the bejabbers out of Martin, who flees to his room and closes the door. The lights outside his room flick off, the floorboards creak, scratching against wood is heard, and something grabs the of-course-old-fashioned doorknob and rattles it. The door bangs lightly twice. The bedside lamp flickers. So his mother was talking to the ghost? And what does this mean? Gabriel Bateman as Martin is an okay child actor, but he cannot for the life of me convince me that he’s actually scared.
The next day, Martin is at some elementary school (at least he actually looks young enough). He’s fallen asleep in class for the third time this week. After a failed attempt to call Sophie, Martin suggests calling Becca, who is his older sister. After an awkward exchange between Becca and a CPS agent in which we forcedly learn that the dad from the beginning was Martin’s father and Becca’s stepfather, that Becca’s real father ran off when she was ten, that Becca does not live with Sophie and Martin and left on bad terms with Sophie, that Sophie is on antidepressants, and that Martin fell asleep in homeroom for the third time this week, Becca and Bret take Martin to his and Sophie’s house.
At Sophie’s house, Becca tells Bret to stay in the car. Aww, would Mommy not approve of your boyfriend? Do you even care about her opinion? Martin clearly wants to stay at Becca’s place, but Becca tries to dissuade him by saying that she has scary posters on the walls. Martin says that he just needs sleep. Becca says they’ll talk about it. As Becca and Martin walk to the front door, Martin mentions someone named Diana. This is the name of the ghost. Oooh, how threatening. This clearly strikes a chord with Becca, who tells Martin that she had the same experience as him after her dad left. She assures him that Diana is not real. Sophie opens the door and invites them in. Martin goes straight upstairs and packs a bag, and Becca converses with Sophie, who admits her refusal to see a therapist or take her meds. I love how neither Becca nor Martin never even mention that Sophie forgot to pick Martin up. Upstairs, another scary sequence happens. After Martin packs a bag, he hears Sophie’s bedroom door open on its own. He investigates only to see a dark figure, Diana, slam the door. Wait, wasn’t the sun shining in that room despite the closed curtains? Three scary scenes in twenty minutes. Wow. Downstairs, Becca plays the “bad mother” card. Sophie tries to counter by saying that it’s hard to raise him without a father and that Becca turned out bad. Becca decides to have Martin stay with her, but he’s already packed his bag. Much to the protest of a distraught Sophie, they go to Becca’s place. What did you expect, Mommy? Your business with Diana has been making you neglect your kid. How dare Becca have the gall to remove her little brother from a clearly unhealthy environment.
Martin settles in quickly. It was about now that I thought, How does a borderline pubescent Martin deal with having a sister with as much sex appeal as she does? Out in another room, Bret tries to call Becca out on alleged BS by asking if Becca’s housing Martin to help him or hurt Sophie. Both, of course. Bret, I thought you were trying to get the approval of this chick. Why are you asking such a crapheaded question? And I know I’m supposed to be paying attention to this conversation, but I can’t help but notice the Avenged Sevenfold poster on the wall. Bret leaves of his own accord.
Becca makes Martin some food and combs his hair. Well, motherly tendencies are a part of female instinct. Martin wonders if his mother’s craziness is hereditary. It’s not, unless it’s some form of mental illness. At least the dynamic between Becca and Martin is a little cute. Unfortunately, with the movie being only seventy-seven minutes long sans credits, it’s too short to build on this bond between these two.
So apparently Becca’s apartment is over a tattoo parlor. Ooookay. I have no idea how she sleeps every night with the sign flashing nonstop into her room. Becca awakes to a scratching noise that stops whenever the sign flashes into the room. Obviously it’s Diana. Becca reaches over to the bedside lamp, but the lightbulb is burned out. Becca sees Diana disappear when the sign flashes. Becca, slow to catch on, slowly gets out of bed to investigate. But Diana notices her. And in the next flash that lasts a second longer than it should, Becca takes the entire duration to realize the situation. The flash stops and Diana is standing up. She lunges for Becca, but the sign flashes again, this time for eight and a half seconds. I counted; the sign normally flashes for only three. Becca lunges for the light switch, and makes it just barely as the flash stops. Good freaking timing. Becca goes into the bathroom, but hears a noise from in the bathtub. She slowly moves over to it, and – you can see the flashlight through the shower curtain. It’s clearly not Diana. Becca opens the shower curtain to see Martin sleeping in it with a turned-on flashlight. How does he sleep with the flashlight turned on?
The next morning, Becca is visited by the CPS agent. And the agent is pissed. She’s all like, “How dare you take your brother from his unhealthy home environment and house him in yours where he’s at least a little safer!” Well, Becca’s his sister! What right do you have to do this? She’s clearly not trying to become his legal guardian! Becca was planning to house Martin for only a few days! Plus, if Sophie is clearly crazy, then as Martin’s sister, Becca is obligated to remove Martin from Sophie’s custody! At least get him out of the house; you can transfer custody when you can! “But she was lucid when I stopped by!” This CPS agent has a point, though it’s not a strong one. Though Sophie is crazy, Becca, according to how her apartment looks, isn’t exactly providing a healthy environment, either. A pair of panties on the rug. Scary posters on the wall. A bong on the couchside cupboard. Oh, noooo, spoopy posetrs and drugz! I also am not sure how good of a guardian for him she would be. Is she employed? Does she make enough to support herself, let alone herself and her brother? And then the CPS agent takes him to school. Isn’t he forgetting yesterday’s clothes? Also, this counselor isn’t even in the rest of the movie. She’s gone off to wherever Esther ran off to. Becca then does some obviously-needed cleaning. And then she notices the scratchings on the wood floor from last night. She didn’t already check those last night? Obviously, it’s going to read “Diana”. She lifts up the rug to see “Diana” and a stick figure carved into the floor. Told you so.
Becca then has a flashback to some arbitrary night when she was a child. She looks a little old to be drawing crappy pictures of her family. Seriously, she’s, like, eight or nine. Grow up. Child Becca’s hair is a shade of blonde too light. Child Becca hears a scratching noise from her closet and looks in that direction. She looks back at her desk to see that her sketchbook is no longer there. She stole my picture! Wait, how was Diana able to take the sketchbook? It was in a lit room! Child Becca looks back at the closet to hear drawing sounds from it. She goes over to it and hits the light switch. How convenient that the light switch was on the bedroom side of the door. The sketchbook drops to the ground out of thin air. She picks up the sketchbook to find the word “Diana” and a stick figure drawn on her picture. Oh, and her dad is blacked out. She ruined my picture! Flash back forward to the present. Literally the only reason that this flashback was there was to show why the name Diana scares Becca. Wow.
For those of you keeping score at home, there have been six scary sequences in thirty minutes. Wow.
One of the best or worst things a scary movie can do is give its evil entity a name. Names hold power. One thing a good scary movie can do is refuse to let you give its villain a name. The idea that you cannot put a name to a terrifying entity only adds to just how unsettling a movie can be. You wouldn’t have known that the name of the demon from The Exorcist was Pazuzu unless you had read the book or had done your research. That’s a big part of what made Pazuzu so scary: his name was either never or rarely mentioned. You didn’t know whether this was just any ordinary demon or the Devil himself. It added an extra level of discomfort. For a more modern example: we still don’t know the names of the red-faced demon or the tall man with the long black hair from Insidious. Because we had no idea who they were, it made them more mysterious as characters. It made them as well as the rest of the ghosts from the Further that much more interesting and frightening. But giving your evil entity a name can work well, too. Bagul/Bughuul (I’ve seen it spelled both ways) from Sinister could have been nameless, letting the mystery surrounding the character add to just how terrifying he was, but learning his name and who he was added an extra level of mysticism to the character, and caused him to become that much more evil. But in Lights Out, the ghost having a name just removes that extra layer of mystery.
Becca has Bret drive her to Sophie’s house to find out about Diana. Yes; who is Diana? Becca apologizes for her BS yesterday. Bret initially doesn’t buy it, but a kiss convinces him to drop the whole thing. Wow.
Sophie isn’t home, so they bust in thanks to a convenient key rock. Bret stands guard while Becca searches upstairs. She goes into her stepdad’s study, which is right next to Sophie’s bedroom. In the study, she conveniently finds a picture of Sophie and Diana as young teenagers. Diana conveniently has her black hair obscuring her face like Sadako/Samara from Ringu / The Ring or Kayako from Ju-on. She even finds a litany of medical files about Diana and even tape recordings of her apparent death, all just sitting in this study. How convenient. From what we can discern, Diana had a skin disease that made her extremely sensitive to light. She was a patient at a mental hospital. She was also particularly aggressive toward others and possessive of Sophie, who was a fellow patient there. She was accidentally somehow completely incinerated in an attempted heliotherapy session. Anyway, Becca hears noises down the hall and goes to investigate. Meanwhile, downstairs, Bret is still standing guard. He decides to open a curtain to let in some light, and the camera shows us that Diana is behind him. What, is she going to kill him now? Actually, no. Becca investigates her childhood bedroom and finds the drawing from the flashback. Predictably, the door closes behind her and locks, trapping Becca in the darkness. Though the room is clearly a little bit lit by the light coming through the curtains, Diana appears, telling Becca to stay away. Contradicting herself, Diana tries hanging Becca by her necklace, which somehow doesn’t break, and somehow Becca is still able to scream. BS. I’ve explained why in earlier reviews. Bret bursts in and Diana disappears. Bret tells Becca that Sophie is here and that they need to go. They grab the box of files and go, somehow not getting noticed by Sophie or Martin, who have arrived home.
Sophie apologizes to Martin for being distant, and asks him if they want to have a movie night together. Martin gladly acquiesces. Sophie says that some personal time is good, for all three of them. Wait, what? Also, is it a Friday or Saturday night? A movie night on a school night is not wise. Also, Martin is carrying a bag of sriracha potato chips. I had no idea they came in that flavor. The two get busy watching Auntie Mame. They have a brief disjointed exchange in which Sophie expresses that she misses Martin’s dad and is pissed that Becca left, Martin says that the best thing to do is face your fears, and I find myself not believing that these two are actually mother and son. This gives Sophie an idea: to introduce Martin to Diana. It doesn’t go well, as when Diana rears over Martin, he runs over to the lamp only to find that there is no bulb. When Diana lunges for Martin, Sophie tries to stop her, trying to convince Martin and Diana that the other doesn’t know any better, but Diana swats her aside. Maybe she should have at least tried to convince Diana to calm down and be nice; after all, Sophie’s just introducing Diana to her son. Diana goes for Martin, but he gets to a light switch in time and switches the lights on. Diana disappears. Wait, how did she appear in the first place? Those curtains are clearly only translucent, as there is still light coming through them. Having had the bejabbers scared out of him, Martin runs off. In fact, he runs all the way to Becca’s apartment.
You know, if Sophie has had The Diana Problem for years, why has she not been conditioning both Diana and Martin to at least tolerate the other’s presence, with emphasis on Diana? If she had been doing that and Diana been caused to mellow out, Martin and Diana could have eventually been willing to form a happy family, or at the very least tolerated each other’s presence. In fact, I kind of wish that that could have happened. Yes, I know that Diana wouldn’t have been willing to tolerate Martin’s presence because of reasons that will be explained later, but Sophie hasn’t even freaking tried.
We’re past the forty minute mark. We’re halfway through the movie. And there have been eight scare sequences.
Becca and Bret discuss the situation, but right when Becca’s about to explain who Diana is, omigod there’s a bang at the door! (sorry, Adum) And the movie’s acting like this is a scare sequence. Seriously. It’s gonna be Martin. It’s gonna be Martin. Yup. I told you so. Nice fakeout. Becca sends Bret shopping. Becca and Martin talk, acknowledging that they know Diana is real. Becca shows Martin the files on Diana. It turns out that Becca’s stepdad / Martin’s dad was doing a ton of research on Diana. SO THEN WHY WAS HE SO OBLIVIOUS IN THE OPENING SCENE?
Becca launches into an explanation sequence that isn’t quite as bad as the prologue to Darkness Falls, but it’s still close. Diana was found locked in a basement at the age of thirteen. Her father had killed himself. She had a skin disease that made her extremely sensitive to light, except that she could be out in the sunlight with just an umbrella. Make up your damn mind. People said she was evil and that she could get inside people’s heads and drive them insane. She became a patient at a mental hospital, where she met and befriended Sophie. Becca thinks that Diana screwed with Sophie’s head and made her think Diana was her friend. So that’s why she can’t tolerate Martin or Becca? That’s a really weak reason. How do we know that Sophie and Diana aren’t actually friends? Diana comes around when Sophie is at her worst. If Diana could get inside people’s heads and change them, then why did she only do it to Sophie? Surely she should have done the same with other people. Maybe that’s why they’re making a sequel. The doctors at the mental hospital tried an experiment on her; they exposed her to a crap ton of incredibly bright light. Because that’s smrt. The sequence is even filmed as if the doctors there were filming it. Diana died, because somehow the light incinerated her. The only reason that Diana hasn’t passed on to the other side is because she has some inexplicable psychic connection to Sophie, and if Sophie gets better, Diana will go away. But obviously, it’ll be a cold day in Hell before Diana lets that happen. Hell, Martin’s dad was trying to break Sophie and Diana’s connection. THEN WHY WAS HE SO OBLIVIOUS IN THE OPENING SCENE? Esther: Hey, I saw someone weird back there. Dad: Cool, all right, see ya. … ehh, I may as well check it out. DEAD. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? DID YOU WANT DIANA GONE OR NOT? YOU CLEARLY KNEW ABOUT HER!
You know, this is a problem with a lot of supernatural and psychological horror movies today: everything has to be explained. Almost every detail is now in plain view (plenty of which were revealed in the trailer), except for the few that actually needed to be explained. Where did Diana get this skin disease? Was she born with it, or did she catch it somewhere? How far did studies on it get, and was it potentially curable? How did she get the ability to go inside people’s heads and screw with their psyches, let alone actually do so? What caused her to be so aggressive toward others and so possessive of Sophie? Could they give us a scientific explanation as to how this bright light experiment incinerated her, and how she was able to remain in the corporeal plane through her psychological connection to Sophie? How exactly did she become this special type of ghost? How does her gimmick work? How does a skin disease allow you to go inside people’s heads and become a ghost that appears when the lights go out? And above all, why did Diana’s ghostly mechanics need to be explained? She was legitimately scary before we knew how and why she did what she did, but she’s totally ruined now. If you’re going to explain everything, then you need to go all out. Either that or make the movie that much scarier by withholding information or hinting at what makes Diana tick and/or having a reason to do what she does.
Remember the fakeout scene from earlier? In a way, it sets up this scare sequence. Omigod, there’s a bang at the door! Becca thinks it’s Bret with the food, but there’s no one at the door. How did Diana knock at the door when the hallway is so brightly lit? Becca then hears footsteps going through her apartment and sounds coming from her closet. She hits the light switch and the closet light turns on. How convenient that the closet light switch was on the bedroom side of the door. Becca opens the closet door and Diana is not there. But Diana grabs Martin from under the bed and tries to pull him under. How come nobody noticed that Diana suddenly learned how to teleport? Becca manages to pull him back out. I love how Diana clearly pulls Martin’s shoe off in one shot as Becca retrieves Martin, but in the next shot, the shoe is back on.
So Diana can get at them from pretty much anywhere. There are shadows everywhere; why doesn’t Diana take any and every single little opportunity to kill Martin and Becca? Can she get at them from every shadow fathomable? From under the table? Under a piece of furniture? Under the bed? Under a blanket? Under their clothes? There are shadows under there, right? Are there limitations? Do the shadows have to be as big as she is? Do they have to be just the right level of dark? Or can Diana only get them when the plot says so? It doesn’t make any sense! This is why David Sandberg shouldn’t have explained how Diana works, because now Diana not being able to get at them from every single shadow cast in every nook and cranny just feels like plot convenience.
Becca, Martin, and Bret go to Sophie’s house, telling Sophie that they need to talk. But they make sure to wait until after dinner, of course. Also, don’t even bother to introduce Sophie to Bret. And in this scene, the camerawork gets really shaky. Becca asks Sophie to tell them about Diana. As Becca tries to explain that Sophie and Diana met at the mental hospital, Sophie interprets the situation as Becca trying to take Martin away from her or Becca feeling bad about leaving her on bad terms. Sophie goes upstairs and locks herself in her room. You know, Sophie, if you’re the reason Diana’s spirit can’t cross to the other side, then you need to let her go. You’re hurting her by keeping her here. Let her go.
Realizing the situation, Becca, Martin, and Bret decide to stay at Sophie’s place so they can help her as they can. So they put in some safeguards. They open the curtains. They tape the light switches up. They store flashlights in convenient places just in case. They light candles. Martin asks Becca to sleep in his bed with him tonight. Becca agrees, and goes downstairs to tell Bret. She passes by her mother’s bedroom door, but finds it locked. She talks to Bret, who is all-understanding and intends to tough the situation out alongside Becca, Martin, and Sophie. Good for him. I wish we felt the bond between Becca and Bret, but with the movie’s ungodly short eighty-one-minute length, we have no such luck. Becca goes back upstairs. She stops and knocks on her mother’s door. Sophie answers and seems to be accepting that moving past Diana and getting better is the best thing to do. She decides that come tomorrow morning, she will start over on this whole situation. She secretly puts a slip of paper into Becca’s hand and hugs her before backing up and being gently pulled into the room by Diana. The slip has writing on it that reads, “I need help”. I wish we felt more of the connection between Becca and her mother, but the punishingly short runtime prevents us from doing so. Becca goes into the bathroom to search for her mom’s meds, but the light flickers, and Becca, smart for once, hightails it out of there. She gets into bed with Martin. Good luck sleeping with all that light.
Thus far, I have been feeling nothing for the characters until the forced sentimental exchanges in the last thirty minutes. And it’s too little, too late.
Wait, the last thirty minutes? That means we’re almost at the climax now! What? There has been no buildup whatsoever! We’re also not even an hour into the movie.
After a little while, the power shuts off. Why the hell didn’t they think of that? Becca grabs a windup flashlight and investigates. This house seems pretty brightly lit for being at night. That, or unless there’s a ridiculously bright moon tonight. She can’t find Bret. Oh no, Bret lef – oh, wait, he didn’t; he’s outside, and he sees that the power’s out for the whole block. Becca goes down into the basement to check the fuse box. Yes, because going down the steep, narrow stairs into the dark, creepy, claustrophobic basement is the smrt thing to do. She checks the fuse box, and nothing works. Back upstairs, Martin wakes up, briefly freaks out, and grabs a candle. He starts to head downstairs, but he is briefly accosted by Diana. He manages to fend her off with his candle, and he backs away into the darkness downstairs. Yeah, you’re not open to attack from behind at all. In fact, that’s a major problem with most of the characters from here to the end: they never think that they might be open to an attack from behind. But rarely does this attack come. Martin runs to the basement, where he berates Becca for leaving him alone. But the two quickly realize that them going down into the basement was them walking right into a trap. Duh, it’s the basement, and you’re in a horror movie. Diana slams the basement door and locks it, trapping them inside. YOU MORONS. Bret comes back inside and hears their cries for help, and tries to get the door open. But Diana accosts him, and he fends her off with the light from his phone that displays the words… “scare assault”. Okay. That is, until the phone inexplicably turns off. Diana smashes it and chases Bret out of the house. He runs under the shadow of the roof over the part of the driveway next to the front door, where Diana snatches him. Hey, Diana learned how to teleport again. But he pulls his car keys out of his pocket and hits the button, turning on the car lights and making Diana disappear. He gets in his car and drives off. HE’LL BE BACK, OBVIOUSLY. Becca tries to tell Martin that Bret isn’t actually leaving, but Martin reminds her that she did. Hell of a time to bring that up. The two decide to find more light, and go down into the basement.
Sophie decides to exit her room with a lit candle that Diana inexplicably didn’t tell her to get rid of. After calling to Becca and Martin and getting no response, she reminds Diana that she told her not to hurt her children. Sophie goes for her pills which Diana had years to get rid of, but Diana swats her away, and Sophie falls and hits her head on her dresser, knocking herself out. Sophie never even tried to take her pills before? As you remember, she clearly realized the direness of the situation, and clearly knew that she had to take her meds. Hell, all she ever had to do tonight was turn on the damn lights. Also, how exactly does taking her meds get rid of Diana?
Becca and Martin set a fire in the furnace. Becca says she’s “working on a plan”. Right. Martin gets out a box. He opens it to find a bunch of Halloween stuff and, conveniently, a big working black light. Becca goes to look around with the black light while Martin stays by the furnace. Because splitting up is the smrt thing to do. Becca finds a handprint that shows up under black light for some reason. Did Diana dip her hand in fluorescent ink first? Or lemon juice? Or are Diana’s hands also covered in semen? Becca even comes across a ton of writing on the walls that must also have been done in fluorescent ink or lemon juice. There are even some mannequins in there, though the faces are slashed to hell. But one of the mannequins turns around. Jumpscare; it’s Diana, who can apparently show up under a black light! Becca runs back a ways, but when she reaches down to grab a shovel, Diana grabs her. Martin shines an actual light on her, and this burns her. The two get back to the furnace. So Diana can show up under black light, and when you’re doing that, you can shine an actual light on her and burn her. What? Somehow, Diana stops the furnace fire. Becca and Martin shout for their mother.
Bret has returned to the house with the police. I told you he’d be back. What exactly did Bret tell the police to get them there? And he brought a couple of expendable extras who will serve as useless cannon fodder just so this movie can have an actual body count! Gotta somehow rack the body count up to more than just one! The police go over to the basement door and break it open.
Upstairs, Sophie wakes up. She notices that all her pills are gone. I guess Diana realized that she shouldn’t let Sophie have her pills even though she’s been able to hide or dispose of them for years. Sophie tries to open her door, but it’s locked. After threatening Diana, she busts open the door.
The police spot Diana. One goes to investigate and is accosted, despite obviously having his light pointed in the direction he was pulled. He tries to shoot Diana, but she disappears whenever a shot is fired, and she kills him. The other officer goes after Diana, but is also killed. Becca gets Martin to Bret while she goes to look for Sophie. She is accosted by Diana, who threatens to do to her what she did to her father. Yaaaaay, more drama for the sake of drama. “Hey, Mom, I want to contact my birth father. How can I do that?” “I dunno.” Plus, where was the investigation into this missing person case? Diana throws Becca over the railing and down to the first floor. Diana corners Becca in a corner. Sophie points a gun at Diana, somehow having purchased a gun in the ultra-liberal hellhole of Los Angeles. So where was she the rest of the scene? Drama drama drama, Sophie kills herself and Diana is defeated because of the psychological bond BS. The horror is over. Can’t show any blood or we won’t get a PG-13. Becca mourns her mother and goes out to meet Bret and Martin (why didn’t they go in and help?), the three promise to be a happy family, the power somehow comes back on, a flickering light hints at a sequel, and the movie sort of just stops. From the moment Diana was defeated until the end credits start rolling, the movie resolves in just under two minutes.
And for those of you that kept score at home, the movie has, over a seventy-seven-minute runtime sans credits, executed twenty scare sequences, including the Martin fakeout. Do a little math, and it comes out to just over one scare sequence happening every four minutes. Wow. So not only is this too many, but there are so many scare sequences that the movie becomes not only monotonous, predictable, and repetitive, but by the end, it’s starting to get boring. That’s right – a less-than-eighty-minute movie sans credits is boring. The movie could have easily been cut to about half its length, and it would have been much better. Worse, not only are the jumpscares here in abundance, but every scare sequence has at least one. Not just one or two or three or four or five or six or seven scare sequences, but literally all twenty scare sequences, give or take maybe one, either end in or feature one or more jumpscares. Not that the jumpscares are fake or unearned; on the contrary, most of them are executed pretty well. But every single jumpscare is the same thing every time. And the sinking dread of predictable and repetitive monotony has set in by the fifth or sixth one. The decently clever crafting of some of the jumpscares is negated, and I was bored by the time I was twenty-five to thirty minutes in. Anticipating an audience for jumpscares that may or may not happen, rather than creating a sensation of ever-building dread, is not making them scared of the evil entity in the movie; it’s making them scared of the jumpscares. But in Lights Out, there is no “may or may not” at all; the jumpscare(s) will inevitably happen. When there are too many jumpscares, the movie loses its rewatchability. Oh, and the scariest moments were all given away in the trailer, including Diana’s inexplicable ability to appear under black light. Remember Hitchcock describing true fear as a group of people sitting around a table, not knowing when a bomb under it is about to go off? Well, Lights Out makes it painfully obvious every time a bomb is about to go off. It’s a far cry from the short film.
Unfortunately, whatever scariness Lights Out might have had evaporates upon the realization that every scare sequence in the entire movie is based around Diana’s one gimmick. This gimmick was used to terrifying effect in the short film. Unfortunately, in the full-length film, the gimmick not only wears off quick, but the filmmakers don’t even try to add anything to it, expand it, or subvert it, except for a contrived reason for it to actually be happening and Diana being able to appear under black light and be burned by real light simultaneously. Diana’s gimmick is an interesting concept, but it is milked completely dry by the time we’re five minutes into the movie. It would have been nice had we gotten a cinematic version of SCP-173 or the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who but with an extra foil added to their gimmicks. You’d think that the basic idea of a ghost that appears in the dark but disappears in the light could lead to various unexpected situations of the lights going out or the ghost finding all sorts of ingenious or convenient ways to put the characters in the dark. But these scenes seemingly happen randomly, and they usually result in the characters splitting up and wandering off on their own and putting themselves in trouble, with barely any trouble happening anyway. Once you’ve seen one scare sequence in the movie, you’ve seen them all. None of them give the movie any sense of pacing, let alone suspense or horror. The movie trips over its own unoriginality one too many times. Worse, it’s not directed or acted well enough to overcome the numerous predictable moments and sequences.
Many of the scariest movies of all time leave a lot to the imagination. We’re given bits and pieces of explanation, but never too much. We’re allowed to fill in the blanks with our own imagination (Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Inactivity don’t count because they ruined themselves by making the characters unlikable). The original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre did this excellently. The VVitch did this beautifully. Lights Out wants to explain everything; hell, the explanation as to what Diana is and what makes her tick is the centerpiece of the whole movie. But if you’re going to explain everything, then you need to explain everything rather than skimp out on the most important questions. By explaining almost everything, Lights Out squanders the one fear it desperately needed to tap into: the fear of the unknown. The fear of the unknown is humanity’s most primal fear. Who is this spirit? Why is she after our characters? Why does she continuously milk her one gimmick? The movie took that away from its audience, leaving them with a predictable story and a litany of jumpscares. This is a problem with a lot of scary movies today: everything needs to be explained.
Elements that this movie needed to utilize were that of total darkness and playing around with the shadows. Lights Out could have been a gold mine of opportunity for the amazing usage of lighting, lack of lighting, and natural lighting. Sinister used that brilliantly. In Lights Out, we are rarely if ever in total darkness. The contrast between lights and shadows was definitely there, but was never utilized correctly. Worse, Diana stands out so prominently from the shadows. She is reliably there every time. The shadows needed to be the prominent character in each shot. The shadows needed to be as dark or almost as dark as Diana was, so she can be borderline unseen, lurking and hiding in them and waiting silently to attack. David Sandberg needed to play around with the shadows and screw with the audience. He needed to introduce the idea of uncertainty as to whether or not Diana was actually standing in that shadow. He needed to make both the characters and the audience unsure. They should be thinking, “Oh my gosh, is Diana there? Is she not? I don’t know! She could be! The shadow is certainly dark enough, but I have no idea if she’s there or not!” That’s scary! For example, one character could be looking at one corner, and the movie could suggest to the character and the audience that Diana might actually be there. And then Diana could blindside both the character and the audience from behind or from the side. Another problem with Diana is that we see too much of her because she stands out so prominently. She needs to be in and around corners or under tables and furniture and beds or on the ceiling or camouflaging herself among the shadows. She should never be standing out in the open. All we should be seeing is, perhaps, a hand, those eyes, or a few strands of hair as she flees around a corner, under something, or into the nearest shadow. The less we see of the evil entity, the scarier it becomes. Plus, there needs to be a hint that Diana’s not the only evil entity living in the shadows.
A scary movie is only as good as its villain: Diana herself. She’s an evil chick that is somehow psychologically attached to the mother of two children, and relies on the mother’s mental instability to survive. Diana’s problem is that she breaks her own rules all the effing time. She could be scary and even ungodly brutal in the opening scene, but be harmless, undisturbing, and shallow for the rest of the film. Sometimes she needs people to open doors for her, other times she can teleport around like a damn god. Sometimes she can appear in somewhat dark shadows, other times she can only appear in total darkness. Sometimes she can get you in a lit room from under your bed, but at other times, she can’t get in a freaking door. Sometimes she can pull you into the dark if you get too close to the shadows, but other times she can’t. She can shatter lightbulbs or black out power grids, but other times she can’t. Plus, Diana’s had a million opportunities to kill off Becca and Martin; why wait until now? Because plot? Also, how can she get from person to person? How can she suddenly show up at the stepdad’s factory or Becca’s apartment? Does she walk all the way there or does she teleport? How awkward would it be if she had to take an Uber ride to two of the four places in this movie? Does she have a cell phone? How would she pay the driver? Would she mooch some cash off of Sophie? She’d have to, because I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have a checking account or a credit/debit card. Diana seems to be connected to Sophie’s family members, but she doesn’t seem to go after Becca until Becca has Martin over at her apartment. Also, when the lights are off and she’s standing there, she’s clearly not in spirit form, as her form is tangible. How does she survive? What does she eat? Does she bathe? Does she ask Sophie for clothes to wear? Doesn’t she get depressed because of her inability to be exposed to sunlight? Does she long for the ability to feel its warmth on her? Do Diana and Sophie ever have a girls’ night out on the town? Does Diana ever feel the desire to have a man in her life or does she feel a lesbian attraction to Sophie? Has Diana aged since she “died”? She and Sophie are about the same age (Maria Bello is forty-nine); is she starting to go through menopause? Is she feeling the effects of not being in her prime? Has she ever felt the womanly instinct of desiring to fall in love, get married, and have children? Anything remotely human? Diana doesn’t seem to have any real goal other than being a bitch (pardon me). She needs Sophie to be depressed or she supposedly vanishes, but decides to try to kill her kids despite them trying to leave her alone, which in theory Diana should be thankful for. For being a chick that just wants to be left alone, she seems to be contradicting herself pretty often. If she just wants to be left alone, why does she attack Becca and Martin? She revealed herself to Becca and even scratched her own name into the floorboards. Diana as a character makes no sense. Despite looking creepy enough, I never felt that she posed any sort of threat to the characters. The characters try to explain everything about her, but not only do the explanations not fit together, but Diana becomes less compelling and less scary. Worse, her origin story was eerily reminiscent of Sadako/Samara from Ringu/The Ring (whichever you prefer; I personally prefer Ringu). Now that I think about it, Lights Out bears much more than a passing similarity to Ringu. But at least Ringu’s premise made more sense. In Lights Out, Diana, this mental patient with a never-before-heard-of skin disease befriends the main character’s mother at a mental hospital. Hasn’t the mental hospital backstory trope been played out yet? Diana can’t be in light, even though she was plenty of times, but she can get inside people’s heads, and that’s why she’s still around in spectral form – she’s attached to the mother’s mind. The movie never explains how Diana was able to do any of this. Where did her skin disease come from? How was Diana able to get inside people’s heads? How did she manipulate Sophie into “friendship”? How many people did she do this to besides Sophie? A Lights Out sequel was announced after the movie’s successful opening weekend, so obviously Diana must have gotten attached to someone else. How did she die? How did she remain in this world by being attached psychologically to Sophie’s mind? How did she get super powers? It doesn’t make any sense! Plus, the characters accepted this BS really quickly and easily. Diana is about as subtle as the Titanic sinking in the middle of the Atacama Desert. Whenever she appears, the music always screams at you in an attempt to scare you, but if you know when these moments will be (this is an incredibly easy task) and just plug your ears and look at what’s going on, Diana’s about as scary as a box of Jujubes. But those Jujubes would still be scarier than Diana.
Some of the characters do the stupidest of things, like walk toward where they know Diana could be, rather than staying in a well-lit area. Though they know that they have to stay in the light to avoid Diana, they still point the light away from them instead of keeping themselves in the light. It was almost funny to see a character holding a light in front of him/her, be it a flashlight or a candle, and backing away into the dark. The excuse that the characters don’t know any better is immediately debunked, as the whole damn family knows that Diana is real and has scars to show from it. They’ve known for a long time how to avoid her. Diana clearly has the power to yank you into the darkness from behind and do away with you immediately. As to why Diana grabs them by their shoulders or stands in a doorway or utilizes other various ridiculous ideas, I do not know.
With the movie being only eighty minutes long, it freezes all efforts to delve into the pasts of our characters, really develop them, and maybe even give them an arc. The only character that had anything negligibly close to a character arc was Sophie. Instead, the characters we get are generic, underdeveloped, minimally motivated, whose backstories are ungodly vague and uninteresting, and whose exchanges are unnatural and forced. Sometimes the movie would tell us about its characters via its expository dialogue, revealing that David Sandberg finds it incredibly difficult to introduce us to the characters and their backstories with any semblance of thought or heart. He clearly has no experience in directing emotionally charged character interaction. The scene in which Becca talks to the CPS agent was perhaps the best example of this, with Becca saying that Martin’s father was only her stepfather, and that her real dad left years ago. Who on earth says that after having only met someone a few seconds ago? It’s as if Sandberg may as well have written on every frame of that exchange, “This is part of the exposition.” Despite being only eighty minutes long, I can’t deny that the movie definitely tries to tell us about its characters and make us sympathize with them. Especially Bret, who’s clearly trying hard to win Becca’s affections and convince her to open up to him, and, despite his clumsiness, is very earnest in his sympathy for her. He is (perhaps unintentionally) the most interesting character in the movie despite clearly not being the main character. In fact, of the four protagonists, he’s obviously the farthest one from being the main character. The movie does spend some time trying to make you learn about the characters (except Bret), but it does so little with it that you wonder what the point was. Ultimately, the story is a simple, basic family drama that’s too restrained and too safe to ever explore the farthest regions of mental instability and the disruption it inflicts on family ties, or create an engaging mystery. The potential was there to write an interesting story, but David Sandberg failed to utilize it. He could have come up with a much better reason for how shadow people come to be, what makes them tick, and why they do what they do.
It’s not as if it was acted or scripted well enough to make it tolerable. Though the Rotten Tomatoes critic consensus describes the performances as “terrific”, I personally found them to be kind of shaky. Though the actors aren’t bad to look at, their performances leave something to be desired. Not that they’re bad in any way; on the contrary, some of them do pretty well at particular moments. But the script gives them nothing to work with, especially poor Maria Bello, who simply doesn’t get enough screentime or workable lines and exchanges to show off her talent. She probably could have come across as mentally unstable, but the script combined with the other actors having little idea what they’re doing hinders her to the point of borderline blandness. Teresa Palmer has one emotion (pouty), Gabriel Bateman never succeeded in convincing me that he was actually scared, and Alexander DiPersia … tried. The dialogue doesn’t help, as all conversations feel unnatural. Sometimes the characters make a weird decision that sets up a scare later. The different subplots (if there were any) and the main story are uninteresting, and when we get to the climax, the movie becomes predictable. At least the movie tried to give us a story; some crappy horror flicks won’t even do that. But whatever story we get is overwrought with limp, poorly scripted characters, and disinterested performances. But it’s hard to blame Palmer, Bateman, DiPersia, and Bello, who all had to undertake the not-exactly-possible task of delivering clumpy dialogue while navigating an avalanche-prone mountain of illogical choices. The movie takes itself way too seriously, and fails to rise above crushingly mediocre. The movie as a whole feels very small; it doesn’t help that there’s only, like, ten people in this movie (did I count that right? Let’s see, four main characters…two secondary characters that are basically bit parts, three bit parts, and an antagonist. Yup, ten).
At least the movie’s nice to look at. Though the camerawork isn’t very dynamic, it’s shot very well; the angles are well-chosen, and the scenes look crisp and clear. The sets are well-crafted, and the costumes and props are all natural. The actors are nice to look at, too. Unfortunately, though the lighting for the non-dark scenes works very well, the lighting when Diana is around leaves a lot to be desired.
At least the soundtrack is decent. I like the chord progressions it uses in the ending theme. The score in general is really emotive once it gets going, but it’s completely underused, purely for the sake of creating jumpscares with it.
I went to see this movie twice, and both times, I did not hear anyone in the audience react to the litany of jumpscares. The eighty-minute length became almost a blessing. But, unfortunately, the length is a two-edged sword, and it’s far sharper on the other side. The fact that Lights Out can’t even breach the ninety-minute mark is a flagrant warning that the film you are about to see contains little to no substance or investment in the characters and how they unveil the truth behind the situation. The movie in its entirety is simply a backdrop for Jumpscare Central. It’s simply a roller coaster ride. But here’s the thing: though I love roller coasters, when I go to the theater to see a movie, I expect to see a movie.
Lights Out is forced, strained, caricatural, and not properly thought out. The idea could have worked in a better script, but David Sandberg can’t bring anything fresh, clever, or innovative to the table. Horror as a genre is a gold mine for subtext, symbols, and metaphors. What particular fear does the monster (physical or psychological) represent? What does conquering it or falling before it say about the fear it represents?
I really enjoyed the short film. The Internet in general did too. But not because of the “story”, what little there was. We liked it because it got under our skin by playing on the primal fear of darkness that we spent our entire childhoods trying to get out of our system and never truly succeeded. But by stretching out the story, trying and failing to create a mythology, writing laughably shaky dialogue, and shoehorning in an inordinate amount of jumpscares, David Sandberg not only sucked out what made the original scary, but shot himself and his feature-length movie in their collective foot. The original short is so good, combining a slow build with repetition and curiosity and placing something frightening and evil into a typically comforting scenario, and finishing it off with perhaps one of the creepiest images in recent years. It feels like the everyday situation in which you wake up in the middle of the night and walk to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and fearing that at any moment a black, icy hand will reach out and yank you into the dark. The fright of the short film was the ghost who, over the course of only three minutes, made her presence known even when she wasn’t onscreen with creaks and noises. Lotta Losten, David Sandberg’s wife, who played the protagonist in the short film, even reenacts the iconic first third of the short in a significantly below-par reinterpretation of the same scene that scared the bejabbers out of everyone on YouTube.
Though the short film was great, it did not need a full-length treatment. We see this a lot nowadays: various attempts to capitalize off of some popular internet story, meme, or urban legend that, when extended, loses what made it special in the first place. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever should never have been made. Unfriended could have worked very well as a short film, but as an eighty-minute slog through quicksand, it fails miserably. The same goes for Lights Out. The short film was unsettling and creepy as just that, a short film. Giving it a backstory made it feel cheapened and degraded. No scene in the movie is as good as the original short film. The closest the movie got was the opening scene, but even that scene copied and pasted the first third of the short film into the feature length film. And I fear that the same thing is going to happen to SiREN, the feature-length adaptation of the “Amateur Night” segment from V/H/S. Please don’t mess that up, because “Amateur Night” was freaking good (the rest of V/H/S can go eff off).
Though I appreciate David Sandberg’s efforts in giving his audience a quick, cheap, clean, and lean horror flick, Lights Out really should have remained a short film. Despite some calling the movie the best horror movie in years, I personally find it to be a painfully, crushingly mediocre look at one’s primal fear of the dark. If David Sandberg was going to base his full-length movie off of the three-minute short film that he himself made, he could have at least made it better than the short film. Unfortunately, everyone’s seen the short film by now, and the novelty has worn off.
You know what would be a fantastic scene in the movie? This. “Character is in total darkness save for a flashlight illuminating the immediate area around him and dead silence save for one or two skittering sounds. The situation is clearly getting to him/her. S/he’s pale, sweating, crying, wide-eyed, breathing hard, and shaking like mad, also shaking the flashlight. As s/he hears the skittering sounds, s/he quickly turns around, but there’s nothing there. Maybe once or twice, the flashlight will go out and the character will shake the flashlight until it turns back on. Maybe on the second time, when the light comes on, we can see the slightest glimpse of a face quickly disappearing into the shadows. This scene needs to go on for several minutes (at least five), letting the suspense and tension build themselves. Let the suspense and tension build to such an unbearable level that the character gives up and curls into the fetal position on the floor, shining the light on his/her face as a last bastion of possible safety. And then, when the light flickers and dims, the character’s and audience’s hopes of getting out alive grow just as faint. Just show either a pair of eyes opening behind him/her or a hand slowly reaching toward him/her. Don’t show it grabbing him/her; just show it reaching toward him/her. The light finally goes out. And that’s where the movie ends. No scream, no instrumental sting, no other sounds, no jumpscare whatsoever. Just leave the audience with a feeling of total, utter emptiness.” That would have been one hell of a scene to end the movie on. It’s a pity it wasn’t in the movie.
But hey, maybe it’ll be in the sequel.
Final verdict: 1.5 out of 5 stars.