Film Review | Lights Out Delivers an Ambitious, Solid Fright-Fest

Lights Out is the feature length adaptation of a brilliantly effective viral short of the same name from 2013.
That small, no budget, no dialogue video has catapulted David F Sandberg across the Atlantic, turning him from an indebted Swedish filmmaker into a director who’s first feature is a wide release that’s already approaching a ninety million dollar take. With a budget of under five million I’m sure that not just Sandberg but also the investors will be happy. So, is it any good?

Given that the premise is basically structured around one scare (a ghost that can only move in darkness) the film has a limited toolbox to work from. Sure enough, set pieces act like a check list of the different types of lights you can think of. Unlucky people find themselves at the mercy of sensor lights, UV bulbs, flickering candles etc. All of these set ups do their creepy job and if they feel contrived it’s in a good way. Seeing a neon sign rhythmically flickering outside someone’s window is to this movie what seeing a bustling kitchen is to a Jackie Chan caper. If the idea is limited in scope it’s milked very well over the movie’s brisk eighty minute run time.

As you would expect, a plot must be built around this premise. As this is a ghost story you’d be right to expect a standard, post-Ring, mystery. What you may not expect is that writer Eric Heisserer has chosen to make Lights Out much more Babadook than Annabelle in its ambitions.  This is a horror film that’s unmistakably about something. In this case, that something is unmistakably mental illness. We follow a young woman (Teresa Palmer- doing a great job) trying to protect her kid half-brother from a demon that has chosen to torment their mentally unstable mother. Now, if you’d mistaken this as a film that’s not about mental illness the movie is at pains to turn the subtext into text at various points.

Even done in a heavy handed way, making this story into a metaphor is actually a strength of the film. Sure, ‘ghost that is hurt by light’ may not feel like an organic expression of insanity but by, at least, trying to give us some thematic meat to chew over the screenplay also helps us to care about the characters. The problem is that if this is a fable the third act leaves us with a message that is, at bare minimum, troubling. In view of the fact that spoilers are a mortal sin I won’t say any more other than hopefully the moral of the story is unintentional.

Ultimately Lights Out is a solid, frightening experience and one with ambition. Everything might not totally work but the scares do. The ghostly antagonist alternates between looming, unnaturally still, in dark recesses and skittering, J-Horror style, at the next poor bastard to have a bulb blow. Explicitly basing a movie around our specie’s fear of the dark isn’t a new move but Sandberg knows how to land these moments. Hopefully helming the upcoming Annabelle sequel doesn’t ruin him.

Lights Out is in cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.

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