Directed by newcomer David F. Sandberg, adapting and expanding his own 3 minute short of the same name, Lights Out is one of those great little horror movies that has a neat idea and works to get the maximum out of it, but still manages to avoid wearing itself out by staying short and to the point. It’s in many ways a familiar haunted house movie but its selling point is the unique characteristic of its monster/ghost/whatever you’d like to call it; that it can only move in the dark. It’s not as simple as that though, all light, whether natural or electronic, repels the being, but also renders it completely invisible. There’s safety in the light, but not out of it.
Upon hearing the big hook behind new horror movie Lights Out, one could be forgiven for thinking that it sounds exactly like the one behind the hugely memorable 2007 Doctor Who episode Blink. That was certainly my initial reaction, so I’ll just say upfront that the similarities are honestly fairly trivial, and Lights Out in no way feels like it’s ripping anything off.
Armed with this premise, Sandberg stages a number of hugely effective and enjoyable set-pieces, exploring many corners of its potential. There are obvious ones where a character is armed only with a torch, but also some especially memorable scenes involving various spotlights in a warehouse, a neon sign that intermittently flashes on and off, and even a striking visual when it runs towards gunfire, each shot providing sufficient illumination to vanish it. Sandberg and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have clearly tried to think of all potential angles to explore within their self-set limitations. On top of this, the being is not confined to only one house (and sensibly they let us know this from the start), so the victims can’t escape it simply by leaving the building.
The film’s lead is Rebecca (Teresa Palma), who becomes involved in the supernatural occurrences when she learns her younger brother is being traumatized by something in his house where he lives with their mentally troubled mother (Maria Bello). It might sound like a bit of a cheap trick to put a child in the midst of the scares but he ultimately adds more substance to Rebecca’s character arc via their relationship, and isn’t just left alone to be frightened all the time. Sandberg also manages to amusingly subvert the idiot boyfriend troupe that seems to turn up in a lot of horror movies. Rebecca’s introductory scene is probably the film’s weakest moment, a bedroom-set encounter in which her and her maybe-boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) exchange clunky dialogue on the nature of their relationship. I’d thought I had him pinned as a useless character right away but was quite wrong.
There is more explored as to the exact nature of the light-adverse creature stalking the family but Lights Out is basically showcase for Sandberg’s ability to craft good jump scares. Much like his producer James Wan, he proves to be very skilled at this, generating numerous frights that prove effective even if you can see them coming, and avoids cop-out red herrings. He is not averse to ramping up the sound effects for maximum reaction, but that’s forgivable when they’re this well-handled. Overall, it’s a solid, fun, scare-filled horror movie announcing a new talent to the genre.