‘Lights Out’ is shaping up to be the horror sleeper of the summer

When the trailer for David F. Sandberg”s Lights Out played in front of a recent general-audience screening for The Conjuring 2 that I attended, I started to feel for the first time that Sandberg might really be onto something with the film, a low-budget horror flick with an ingeniously simple premise: a vicious spirit that can only be seen (and, presumably, hurt you) in the dark. To borrow a phrase from Hitchcock: the trailer played the crowd like a piano.

Lights Out is based on Sandberg”s short film of the same name, which went viral after hitting YouTube back in 2014. The three-minute clip ultimately caught the attention of Hollywood horror maestro James Wan, who came on board to produce a feature-length version of the short and even recruited some of his key creative partners (including Furious 7 cinematographer Marc Spicer) to the cause.

“This guy has what it takes, and it's really hard to find filmmakers that get these things,” Wan told the LA Times at this year”s WonderCon. “People think it's easy to make a horror movie that works. It's not, that's why there's a lot of crap out there. To find a director that gets this stuff I go, 'All right, this is what we'll do. We'll support him, we'll give him the tools, we'll give him a bit of the money that he needs to make the movie, we'll surround him with a good crew. And hopefully that will let him be creative as he can be.'”

With two rock-solid trailers so far and mostly-positive reviews out of the film”s buzz-building debut screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this month, it appears that Wan”s bet may have actually paid off (having the Conjuring and Insidious director”s name attached certainly doesn”t hurt matters). I actually see echoes of Gore Verbinski”s American remake of the J-horror blockbuster Ring in the Lights Out marketing campaign, in that it brilliantly capitalizes on the film”s straightforward concept while teasing audiences with drawn-out scenes of armrest-clinging suspense that effectively scare the bejeesus out of them.

In judging the film”s box office prospects, it”s worth noting that summer has historically (and perhaps counterintuitively) proven to be a great time to release horror films — or at least good horror films. Look no further than Wan”s original Conjuring, which debuted to over $40 million in July of 2013 and rocketed to over $130 million in the U.S. alone. Lest we forget also the likes of Alejandro Amenabar”s haunted-house chiller The Others ($96 million in August 2001), found-footage blockbuster The Blair Witch Project ($140 million in July 1999), M. Night Shyamalan”s The Sixth Sense (a whopping $293 million in August 1999) and the original Poltergeist, which proved way back in 1982 that supernatural scares could sell in the middle of beach season.

So will Lights Out join the ranks of horror”s biggest summer sleepers? While early reviews from the likes of Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and The Wrap have been mainly positive, the film”s box office prospects will dampen considerably if the mass of critics who have yet to weigh in prove to be less kind. While horror films released at the height of the Halloween season or, say, in the January doldrums tend to perform reasonably well no matter how the critics come down, it seems to take a little more encouragement for audiences to pay up for an outright chiller when it arrives in the midst of summer”s tentpole-barrage (in that sense, Lights Out has some stiff competition, with sure-to-be-huge franchise entry Star Trek Beyond and the animated sequel Ice Age: Collision Course set to open the same weekend). One glance at the stellar Rotten Tomatoes scores of the above-mentioned titles suggests horror films that finish with a healthy “Fresh” rating have a far better chance of breaking out between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and all signs so far point to Lights Out becoming the next scare-flick to literally shake up the summer.

Lights Out hits theaters on July 22. It stars Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello and Gabriel Bateman.