Bait and Switches
Warning: This review refers to elements of the plot.
If the bulk of low budget shockers released in recent years have filled you with dread, it’s probably because you anticipate variants on some well-worn themes. Your bingo card is likely to include families terrorized by malevolent spooks, enormous foreboding houses, parasitic foes, disturbing child drawings, a history of brutal violence (usually murder), the trio of knocking, scraping and creaking, and ear bleeding musical cues. Lights Out has all the above, plus a gimmick – a monster that, for reasons too complicated to go into here, can only operate in pitch darkness. That pushes all the right psychological buttons of course – the thing under your bed, the thing in your closet, the thing in that dark corner of your room, and director David F. Sandberg handles that creeping nastiness with enough skill to make producer James Wan, haunted house master-in-chief, proud.
But Lights Out, though it promises to be a derivative to the point of indifference, has a little more in its kit bag than well-staged boo-farts and computer-assisted tricks of the light. Sandberg’s remembered that the only thing that makes us care about a threat is interest in those threatened, and it’s subsequently a relief that we like Teresa Palmer’s wayward daughter (plus her wet boyfriend in tow) and the psychological intrigue surrounding her broken family; tensions the psychotic silhouetted ghost has ruthlessly exploited.
A ghoul with an unhealthy attachment to a childhood friend, with a vested interest in exacerbating her mental illness and pushing out the strong, stable members of the family who might provide support, is a nice idea, and a lot more interesting than the abstract motives for haunting the living, oft thrown up by these types of movies.
It’s not entirely satisfying. The short running time, 81 minutes, is indicative of a lot of exposition being introduced in a highly convenient manner, with a lot riding on Palmer’s sensible heroine, and the resolution of her Daddy issues, to offset the slightly stiff turn by imperiled little brother, Gabriel Bateman. But one can forgive a film that’s to the point and character focused, with producers who’ve made creative use of constraints imposed by the budget.
Lights Out is creepy and just a tad demented, and that, most horror fans would agree, will do very nicely.