Horror is a genre that is most effective in your head. In the moments following the trailer, when your mind races and fills in the blanks with scenes that make you outwardly shiver; in the hours following when you hesitate to turn off the light, taking a few extra moments to drift off to sleep.
This build up is exactly what happened to me with Lights Out. David F Sandburg’s first feature length film as credited director. Sadly, it did not deliver to the expectations I’d set forth in my head.
The story is a simple one, filled with horror tropes that it unashamedly hashes out on screen. A young boy, Martin, is kept awake at night by his mother who is off her meds and is seeing ghosts as a result.
Specifically, one ghost: Diana; who manifests as a demonic looking humanoid with fingers that are too long and other weird body dimensions. The kind to make you feel uneasy, but not outright frightened whenever she appears.
You follow Rebecca, Martin’s older sister, who ran away from the family home after experiencing the same sleepless nights as Martin currently is. In facing her childhood fears, she attempts to unravel the truth.
The film is rife with jump scares and husky voices telling the characters to “keep the lights out”. Doors that slam when you get too close, and eerie noises at night. The jumpy points are quite predictable, the classic fake out of music stopping leading you to expect a scare, only to have it appear a moment too late. It may catch you on occasion, but most moments are easy to spot if you’re even somewhat familiar with scary movies.
Where Lights Out is unique, however, is in the premise that Diana can only appear in the darkness. It’s a horror that only exists in a pre-existing fear of many: if you’re afraid of the dark, you’re afraid of Diana. This puts a nice spin on the low light and seemingly unending nighttime of many horrors, gives it a reason to be in the movie and lends itself well to the already dark and quiet aspect of theatres – surrounding the audience with what the characters on screen fear most.
This premise, of a monster that only appears in the darkness, has an interesting beginning. The entire movie is based upon a short film released on Youtube and Vimeo in 2013 (written and directed by the eventual features director, David F Sandburg), in which we see a woman shutting down a mannequin workshop as she prepares to head home. When she turns the lights off, a silhouette appears in the doorway. Lights on, figure disappears. So on and so on, until the figure appears closer when darkness sets. The woman tapes the lights on in an attempt to stop the figure re-appearing, and heads home.
Tucking herself in bed, her lights flicker and hallway floorboards creak. She hides beneath her blankets before bravely venturing to the light, turning it on. As she turns, the monstrous figure appears once more, turning the lights out, and ending the film.
The clip, which spans just under 3 minutes, went viral. To this day, it has amassed almost 3.5 million views on YouTube alone.
The opening scene of the clip, with the woman turning the lights on and off, is recreated almost shot for shot in the opening scenes of the feature film. Lotta Losten, who appeared in the short film, returns to do this scene in the movie in a nice little nudge to the plots beginnings.
In the feature film, this is our introduction to Diana. We see her appear in the doorway, scaring the woman off. She warns her boss to be careful on his way home, though he doesn’t make it that far. He is captured in the darkness, massacred and torn apart by Diana before the title sequence rolls.
Starting like this, the quick introduction to the deamon of the film rather than with calm scenes of laughter and family fun, pulls the viewer in. Most scary films these days prefer to relax with premise to begin, to build a backstory and characters that they can tear down with knives, possession, or whichever trope lends itself to that particular film. In Lights Out, the backstory is paced throughout the film as the characters investigate, and uncover more of the mystery that makes Diana.
Despite this tactic, however, Lights Out fails to build enough momentum to see itself through. By the credits, you are left with a story that seems to rely on coincidence and the audience not thinking enough about whats put in front of them rather than clever story-telling. It feels stretched and drawn out, despite running just over 80 minutes.
Commercially, for a horror, the film was a success – grossing over $125 million – and has already been green-lit for a sequel.
In the theatre, however, it succeeds in creeping you out; but ultimately fails in stopping you turning the Lights Out.