In less than three nearly wordless minutes, David F. Sandberg’s original short film, “Lights Out,” toys cleverly with one of the fundamental precepts of horror (and of being scared, period): That something out there, in the dark, is waiting to harm us. The hook of Sandberg’s short is that the threat moves in the shadows, attacking only when there’s no light source around it. In this scenario, pockets of illumination act like small islands in shark-infested waters — dip a toe in the current and it’s liable to get bitten off. Beyond the premise, what’s impressive about the short is Sandberg’s efficiency and wit as a shock artist, the way he’s able to establish the rules without exposition and deliver a couple of strong jolts before cutting to black.
Now, courtesy of producer James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring), Sandberg and his screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, have the difficult task of extending three minutes into 81 without exhausting a smart concept or losing the snap of a compact “Boo!” The brevity of the feature-length Lights Out helps enormously, because it carries the minimalist spirit of the short, refusing to overwork what’s essentially the horror equivalent of a one-joke comedy. On the other hand, the requisite expansion introduces a tortured, confusing story of mental illness and Hitchcockian doubles that Sandberg and Heisserer never straighten out satisfactorily. They’ve made a film that’s just sophisticated enough to wither under the scrutiny its psychodrama inspires.
The terrific opening sequence, set in a mannequin factory after dark, is a sustained mini-masterpiece of suspense, bringing back the actress (Lotta Losten, the director’s wife) from the short for what amounts to another standalone gem. It ends with the factory’s owner (Billy Burke) getting killed and news of his death reaching a family that isn’t as surprised to hear about it as you’d think. The victim’s stepdaughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), has long since fled her dysfunctional family home, becoming so resistant to commitment that she refuses to allow her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) to leave so much as a sock in her apartment. But Rebecca gets dragged back into the picture when reports of domestic disturbances at her mother’s house force her to take action.
Still reeling from the loss of her husband, Rebecca’s estranged mother Sophie (Maria Bello) has abandoned her anti-psychosis medication and left her grade-school-age son, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), to deal with the consequences. Rebecca intervenes after Martin complains of his mother’s imaginary (or not) friend “Diana,” whose predatory behavior has him sleeping with the lights on, if he’s able to sleep at all. Recalling her own childhood dealings with “Diana,” Rebecca first rescues her little brother from Sophie’s custody and then later moves into the family home to protect him and unmask the light-sensitive boogeywoman who’s been tormenting all of them.
So what is this threat? Is it real or imagined? Alive or dead? Separate from Sophie’s mental illness or a nasty manifestation of it? Lights Out doesn’t answer those questions as clearly as it might, which is both hugely disappointing and something of a relief, given the sinister implications about the clinically depressed. It also reduces Bello, by far the most accomplished and compelling actor in the cast, to a supporting role, yielding the floor to the stock types fleeing “Diana” rather then going deeper with the one character who knows the monster intimately. A scene where a half-crazed, bleary-eyed Sophie hosts a “movie night” to appease her rattled son glimpses the better road not taken.
As a scare machine, however, Lights Out works like gangbusters, especially once all the main characters are gathered under one roof. Sandberg works wonders with dodgy sources of light — flickering bulbs, candles, a hand-cranked flashlight, a “black light” — that alternately spare them and leave them exposed to the monstrous shadow-figure that’s in relentless pursuit. Horror films makes us wonder what’s lurking in the dark, but Lights Out goes a step further by making the dark itself a predatory beast, weakened by illumination. There’s an almost Biblical metaphor here about the fight between good and evil — the light of decency and truth dispelling the dark forces of wickedness and sin — but the film abandons it along with the other themes that go underexposed. Fittingly, the fear doesn’t linger once the house lights go up.