Sunday, July 24, 2016

In Theaters: LIGHTS OUT (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by David F. Sandberg. Written by Eric Heisserer. Cast: Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho, Emily Alyn Lind, Lotta Losten. (PG-13, 81 mins)

Produced by INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING director James Wan, LIGHTS OUT is a feature-length expansion of David F. Sandberg's two-and-a-half minute short film with the same title that went viral in 2013. It was a marvelous little self-contained fright sequence that built up more ominous dread in 150 seconds than most 100-minute features. Sandberg also directs the new LIGHTS OUT, from a script by Eric Heisserer, whose writing credits include the 2010 remake of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the 2011 prequel THE THING, and the same year's FINAL DESTINATION 5. Sandberg and Heisserer keep things focused and on-point with LIGHTS OUT which, upon a cursory glance, has some big things working against it: it relies on the obligatory jump scares and its supernatural antagonist could just as easily be called THE GRUDGADOOK, a psychological manifestation that only attacks in the dark as a creepy-eyed, blinking silhouette, looking not unlike UNCLE BOONMEE doing the herky-jerky JU-ON shuffle. But Sandberg knows how to stage a scare, going for the usual loud jolts, but displaying a genuine understanding of atmosphere and buildup. There's some legitimately creative ways the heroes combat the spectral figure pursuing them, holding it back and keeping it away with any available light source, resulting in clever scenes like a guy holding out his illuminated smart phone like Van Helsing wielding a cross to ward off Dracula.

Sophie (Maria Bello) suffers from serious depression and is unable to deal with the death of her second husband Paul (Billy Burke), who was killed in the opening scene by a silhouetted spectre in his mannequin factory (an inherently creepy setting even without a shadowy presence darting around the warehouse). She's prone to long discussions with her unseen "friend" Diana, who hides in her closet and occasionally shows hints of her presence to Sophie's ten-year-old son Martin (Gabriel Bateman), like long, talon-like black fingers emerging from behind a barely-cracked door, subtly pulling Sophie away as she tries to talk to him. Unable to sleep and having trouble at school, Martin begs to stay with his older half-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), Sophie's daughter with her first husband, who split when Rebecca was about Martin's age and hasn't been seen or heard from since. Rebecca has her own issues--living in a dumpy apartment above a tattoo parlor, she wants nothing to do with her mother, she's fiercely independent and doesn't allow Bret (Alexander DiPersia), the nice guy she's seeing, to get too close. Rebecca doesn't want to get involved but when Martin mentions Mom's friend Diana, traumatic memories return and she realizes her little brother is dealing with the same problems she had. It isn't long before an angry Diana is attacking the siblings at Rebecca's apartment (Sandberg makes great use of a flashing red neon "Tattoo" sign outside Rebecca's window), and when Sophie goes off her meds, Diana's power only grows in strength, putting everyone in danger.

"Diana" is a pretty obvious metaphor for Sophie's depression, and if the film has any problem, it's that it lays on too much exposition and over-explains the symbolism like it doesn't trust the audience to reach that conclusion. LIGHTS OUT explores territory very similar to THE BABADOOK and in that respect, doesn't bring much innovation to the table. It does, however, succeed as a fairly non-stop scare machine, running a brief 81 minutes and never having a chance to wear out its welcome. There's some chilling and intense set pieces throughout, and it's a great example of the kind of horror movie designed for maximum crowd response. It uses the standard jump-scares of today, but doles them out just right so they aren't overused. Too many of today's horror films just pile on jump scare after jump scare until you see them coming and you're pretty much numb to them. LIGHTS OUT spreads them out enough and lulls you into a comfort zone before delivering its scares, making them much more powerful. Some terrific performances add credibility as well. Bello and Palmer are perfectly cast as mother and daughter, DiPersia's Bret is a refreshingly real guy and not a pop culture-quipping dudebro, and young Bateman is very believable as a little kid who's been forced to grow up too soon, and he also has a great stare when scary shit is happening right in front of him. Not a classic but much better than it has any business being, LIGHTS OUT has an undeniable familiarity to it, especially coming so soon after THE BABADOOK, but Sandberg gets enough of the little details right that it impresses as one of the better big-studio horror offerings of late.

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