“Lights Out” started as a two minute short film that got a lot of buzz going around the horror circuit a couple years ago. Making a full length feature out of something completely devoid of actual story, though, is another matter completely. Luckily the creators of the full length “Lights Out” have kept the pure thrill of that initial short but then, smartly, made it part of a story that’s heavy enough on its own, even before the boogeyman starts appearing in the shadows.
Similar to recent movies like “Oculus” and “Mama,” “Lights Out” puts into a protagonist’s life that’s already filled with drama. Here we have a young boy stuck in his house with an increasingly crazy mother. His father was killed and his big sister got out as soon as she was old enough. Because of the scary thing in the house, he can’t sleep, which is causing him problems at school. Problems his mother doesn’t seem especially equipped to help him address.
When mother fails to pick him up from school, the duty falls to the boy’s twenty-something sister, Rebecca, played by “Warm Bodies” alumnus Teresa Palmer as a sharp-edged rocker chick who won’t let her boyfriend too close, even though he’s obviously madly in love with her. She’s also in no position to take over parental duties from her mother but, as things escalate, she’s faced with some hard choices.
The mother here is played by Maria Bello, always a strong presence, here a broken mix of anxiety, depression and terror. As we learn more and more about the creature in the darkness, we start to see her character unspool, learning this far more than a simple house haunting and the sadness that defines their family is far from an accident.
At the center of “Lights Out” is a monster that can only survive in the darkness. It avoids any and all light and as long as you can keep yourself surrounded by light, you’re ok. This leads to an assortment of scenes where lights flicker and the monster appears, only to vanish when the lights stay on, or, in some cases, to be able to make a move when the darkness stays.
As slight as “Lights Out” sometimes is (and even at 81 minutes it still feels padded toward the end,) it’s still working off a foundation of something serious. These are hard characters who have lived a hard life, they’ve hurt one another and been hurt. Palmer’s Rebecca is independent and defiant but knowingly lost. Her decision to take care of her baby brother is not she’s prepared for, but still one she takes, knowing that doing so would put her back near the danger she had fled from so many years ago.
Bello, too, is playing to a serious mental trauma in her character. She’s both manipulated and terrified, a victim from so many directions. She’s lost two men and her daughter to this curse and knows she’ll lose her son. In one scene she attempts to save him by having him embraced by the darkness. She’s the one that gets the most hurt. It’s the tragedy of her situation that fuels the movie’s frantic finale.
Fear of the dark is the basic staple of horror movies. “Lights Out” takes that basic idea and drills into a family dynamic, blurring the line between the horrors of real life and the horrors of the supernatural. It may not be able to completely support its own weight but, even when it falls short, there’s still enough going on in the shadows to make you shiver.