Lights Out and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros
Directed by David F Sandberg
This movie managed to fly COMPLETLEY under the radar for me. I think I saw one poster and one trailer for this movie before I went to go see it, and frankly it looked no better than your typical Blumhouse sequel or even The Forest from earlier this year. Still, there have been a few damn good horror movies this year (at least three are eligible for my top ten list) so maybe there’ll be something to this as everyone seems to have stepped up their game this year. Can this manage to be yet another great horror movie in the Post Paranormal Activity era, or is this another cheap cash grab to make a few bucks off undiscerning teenagers? Lets’ find out!!
The movie follows Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) who’s living her life as… a tattoo artist I think, with her sort of boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) but it all gets turned upside down when Child Protective Services calls her up as an emergency contact for her younger half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who’s been falling asleep in class lately and seems to be having very intense nightmares. Unfortunately this is nothing new for Rebecca as her mother is known to go through manic depressive episodes which she was subject to several times as a young girl, especially considering that Martin’s father (Billy Burke) recently died under… suspicious circumstances, which parallels with Rebecca’s own father ran off when she was a kid (*cough* bullshit *cough*) and her mother is going through the same motions. The thing is though that it’s not just her mom being unbalanced that’s causing Martin nightmares. There seems to be a monster lurking in the dark that his mother is acting all buddy-buddy with which is freaky as hell in its own right before it starts banging on his door at night! What is this monster that their mother has invited into the house? Has it ALWAYS been there… hiding in the background… sneaking in the shadows? Is this gonna turn into a gritty reboot of The Funky Phantom!?
For some reason this seems to be the year where movies that are USUALLY subpar or downright awful turn out to be pretty darn good; namely sequels and horror movies. I still can’t explain why sequels are so much better this year than most (and that may be an opinion that only I share), but it’s a bit easier to see why horror films have been on the upswing recently. Now aside from The Forest which was the first movie I saw this year (that wasn’t a 2015 movie that came to my theater later), we’ve got The Boy, The Witch, The Shallows, and ESPECIALLY The Purge: Election Year which were much better than they had any right to be (The Shallows, The boy) or were expected to be (The Witch, The Purge: Election Year). The obvious link here is that none of these are found footage which was a good idea turned poisonous by sheer laziness and overexposure, but frankly they all also manage to have compelling characters, interesting and well executed villains, and creative filmmaking, which is what you’d want from ANY movie, yet seem to be particularly well done in horror movies this year. To varying degrees, sure, but I’ll they still have a really good track record so far. Now where does THIS movie stand? I’d say that it’s definitely another example of a movie that’s WAY better than it’s dopey premise has any right to be, but I ultimately came away disappointed by the film as it had done such a good job at setting things up and giving us a reason to think this would be great, but couldn’t manage to pull it off by the end. It’s a damn fine horror movie to be sure, but it’s disheartening that it didn’t end up being a GREAT one.
It’s not hard to see what works really well about this movie. It’s polished in a lot of places that really matter and has a level of creativity that we normally wouldn’t see from the yearly deluge of horror films in years prior. The acting is fine from all the people in here, and while no one’s gonna get an Oscar for this, at least horror movies have moved on from casting awful actors who we’re supposed to believe are TOTALLY REAL or casting pop stars looking for an extra paycheck. In particular, I’m surprised I came around to Alexander DiPersia who plays the boyfriend here as he came off rather scummy and I pegged him for an early death, but stuck around and managed to become rather likable. Teresa Palmer does fine as the nominal hero in this and does have some good moments as she has to portray someone with a lot of deeply held and repressed trauma, but Gabriel Bateman as the young kid going through the trauma RIGHT NOW isn’t all that compelling and barely even registers in the movie. I liked Maria Bello as the mother, but there wasn’t enough of her in the movie (we’ll get back to that), and the same for Billy Burke as the dad who dies very early on, though his role is INTENTIONALLY minimal so it’s not a big problem.
The cinematography and effects are the real stars here, so while the acting is workable for the movie they’re in, they’re really secondary to the monster on hand and how the movie is shot. It’s an amazingly solid premise that they have here with the monster Diana being a creature that only exists in the darkness and has clearly defined rules of how it interacts with the world and how it can be a threat… for the most part. There’s no real explanation of WHERE these powers came from, how she can seemingly use telekinesis at some points, and how strong she is compared to a regular person (I know a gun won’t work because the light from the gunshot hides her as the bullet passes by, but what about a good sized machete in the dark?), but even so there is so much life and character given to this monster simply through the body language provided by the actress Alicia Vela-Bailey and its fascinating to watch how she slinks around in the darkness, what she does to counteract light sources, and the fact that she IS in some ways vulnerable. There’s weariness to her movements whenever there’s light around (even if it doesn’t hurt her, she still wants to avoid it), and the savagery of her attacks whenever she has a clear shot at someone. It’s a remarkable performance that makes me hope (however erroneously) that she really will become a Jason or Freddy like character that can be explored in other movies. True the setup doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of sequelizing (and any sort of retrofitting to MAKE that work would surely be ham-fisted and lame), but she’s probably the most interesting straight up monster movie villain I’ve seen since… I don’t know, the pumpkin head kid from Trick ‘r Treat?
Unfortunately, the script in this just doesn’t live up to the monster they’ve crafted here, and that’s why it feels disappointing for being merely an AWESOME horror movie instead of an all-time classic. The more we learn about Diana and her relationship with kids’ mother, the less interesting they become as the movie employs a lot of TELL, DON’T SHOW, in regards to how these two interact with each other. Actually, there’s a lot of that here outside of the main bad guy, what with the dad giving a HUGE exposition dump at the beginning of the movie and Rebecca giving like four of those throughout; not to mention the crown jewel of this being a scene where Child Protective Services takes Martin away from Rebecca’s place and back to the mom who keeps the house in CONSTANT AND TOTAL DARKNESS (apparently the CPS representative had a very nice and lucid chat with her off-screen). Anyway as far as Diana, her entire backstory can be summed up with a single photograph and the details they bother to throw in here (including audio recordings) are just the most cliché of the EVIL GIRL WANTS REVENGE trope you can imagine which is disappointing considering how three dimensional she seems here yet they couldn’t follow through with a decent origin.
They could have compensated for this though IF they had bothered to give her a real character arc within the movie (outside of how wonderfully she’s portrayed by Alicia Vela-Bailey), but it just never happens. Without spoiling too much, the mother was the only friend that Diana had and after Diana’s accidental death (some sort of SCIENCE experiment gone wrong), they still found a way to stay friends. It’s not very specific, but let’s just say Diana is a ghost with the personality of Yurika Hakonaka from Yuri Kuma Arashi (i.e. VERY needy). This relationship though is never explored as I don’t think Diana and the mother have an onscreen conversation until the very end. Hell, Diana doesn’t even really talk until the last twenty minutes which is such a wasted opportunity! Think about it. We have a setup where a lonely woman who has trouble maintaining stability but is able to find some in a ghost who loves nothing more than to be a shoulder to cry on for her friend and will do anything to maintain this unhealthy relationship going on. Sounds good, right? Hell, from everything we can extrapolate from the life that both of them had led, Diana is a pretty damn sympathetic character; always hated, never truly loved expect by one person, and then abusing that relationship as she has no other way to deal with her feelings. If they had given us a couple of scenes where these two are talking and interacting (there are several times that the mother is locked in her room with Diana but we aren’t privy to what goes on in there), it could have been given this movie a real gut punch as it moved into its tragic climax. Instead, it’s just another movie where a monster’s roaming the house and the kids have to escape which is maybe a tenth as interesting as it could have been. Not to completely discount the third act which is still fun to watch (the actual ending is perfect and exactly what is SHOULD be), but could have been much more if the second act had a bit more going for it.
The movie this reminds me most of is The Babadook, and unfortunately this movie doesn’t manage to be as good as that one as much as I wish it was. The thing is that The Babadook annoyed me as it was another movie that focuses on the person who is possessed which is a REALLY hard line to walk and is neigh impossible to tell a redemption story about. Either our main character turns into a monster which means they take action that puts them in unforgivable territory (I didn’t care what happened to the woman in that movie after she hurt an animal) or the main character DOESN’T go that far which means the thing possessing them is not a credible threat. This movie could have easily been everything I wanted from The Babadook (externalize the threat, have more than two relevant characters) but the writing on The Babadook is head and shoulders above what ultimately got here. I still absolutely recommend seeing this as it is a really solid horror flick, but temper your expectations as the first half makes promises the second half can only sort of deliver on.
If you like this review and plan on buying the movie, then use the Amazon link below! I’ll get a percentage of the order it helps keep things going for me here at The Reviewers Unite! In fact, you don’t even need to buy the item listed! Just use the link, shop normally, and when you check out it will still give us that sweet, sweet, percentage! You can even bookmark the link and use it every time you shop! HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?