Any horror movie that opens in a mannequin warehouse after midnight has the right idea and for a few brief moments, “Lights Out” seems like a contender for the scariest film of the year.
Shot mostly in silence, a man (“Twilight’s” Billy Burke) and his assistant perform inventory. As they go about their business, a silhouette of a strange misshapen figure appears to be slowly skittering around in the darkness. But when the lights go on, the figure disappears.
You’ve probably seen parts of this sequence in the trailer and director David F. Sandberg amps up the tension with the use of an overhead light that has a malfunctioning motion-detection timer. The end result is nerve-wracking, intense and, unfortunately, promises far more than it can actually deliver.
Partly it’s because the filmmakers aren’t quite sure where to take this premise; but mostly it’s because “Lights Out” pulls a “Babadook” and turns its pale, photo-sensitive ghoul into a heavy-handed metaphor. The symbolism in this film is so clumsy and obvious they should have retitled the film “Oooo! Clinical Depression is Scaaarry!”
“Lights Out” revolves around a spooky entity named Diana who is a quasi-ghost/walking J-Horror cliché from 2003 that is violently allergic to any kind of light. Diana only appears when her friend Sophie (Maria Bello) is off her meds and emotionally fragile.
After Diana drove away Sophie’s first husband and killed off Burke – her current beau, Diana is now focusing on Bello’s kids. However, Sophie’s oldest (Teresa Palmer whose Avenged Sevenfold posters and collection of Sandman graphic novels make it unclear if she’s meant to be a sympathetic character) and unnaturally mature youngest (Gabriel Bateman) have a history with the unbalanced ghoul and know that if they turn the light switch on and off a bunch of times it will annoy Diana enough to make her go away for a little while.
Considering that a lot of the set pieces revolve around Diana running as fast as she can and then stopping whenever somebody suddenly notices her as they switch on the lamp, “Lights Out” feels like somebody adapted a game of Red Light/Green Light into a movie and tried to make it really, really creepy.
Adapted from Sandberg’s 2013 short of the same name, “Lights Out” serves as an example of how not to expand a three-minute film into an 81 minute feature. Instead of keeping things ambiguous, “Lights Out” has a pathological need to over explain everything. Yet, the more it explains, the less sense it makes.
Much like the aliens from “Signs,” Diana has an unbelievably ridiculous weakness that none of the characters are smart enough to exploit. If you’re current on your electric bill and own a night mask, what exactly is so scary about Diana?
Additionally, the depression subtext isn’t quite subtext: it’s text. Large black text stamped across Bello’s distressed forehead that spells out the word: duh.
At best, “Lights Out” views people with depression as eccentric bummers. At worst, dangerous burdens. Things get even more muddled and irresponsible during the climax, when Bello realized there’s only one way to destroy Diana. A solution that inexplicably leads to a happy ending.
When did monsters stop being monsters? Can’t I just watch a wolfman attack somebody and not be bludgeoned over the head with the fact it’s supposed to represent jealousy or herpes or whatever? Stop it!
To be fair, “Lights Out” is Sandberg’s first feature and, as such, there are hints of a more promising director. Apart from the opening, there’s a startling moment in which Palmer is terrorized by Diana as the creature blinks in and out of existence to the rhythm of a vintage neon sign. Sandberg is obviously a talented director and maybe in his next film, we’ll get to see the full extent of his abilities. Too bad that next film happens to be “Annabelle 2.”
Maybe the third time will be the charm.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.