Watching the viral short “Lights Out” shows how brevity is great for horror. Rather than trying to explain some convoluted back story, the short runs with a simple but unnervingly chilly concept. When expanded for a feature-length film, Lights Out takes on some backstory and adds a few more characters into its story. To the film’s credit, though, it still manages to keep everything surprisingly streamlined, running an effectively brief 81 minutes while giving its characters enough sketching-out to be compelling.
The full-length version of Lights Out revolves around Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a twentysomething woman with a fear of commitment. She left home years ago, but her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) still lives with their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), who has recently stopped taking her medication, keeps their home dark, and keeps talking to something in the shadows. Martin’s grown terrified to the point where he’s constantly falling asleep in class, which leads to Rebecca coming back home to deal with a terror from her childhood she thought was imaginary.
The opening sequence most closely resembles the short, establishing the presence of the spirit, here named Diana, in areas where there isn’t any light. It’s clear early on that Diana is very much real, and very much deadly. But Lights Out fleshes out Diana’s appearance, linking it to lows in Sophie’s mental stability. It creates a greater sense of conflict for Rebecca and Martin, who both want to save themselves from Diana by pulling away from Sophie, but also feel the need to separate Diana from Sophie. It’s an intriguing take on mental illness that comes across like a mainstream take on the concepts from The Babadook, that almost works.
Yeah, almost. The ending comes across as both abrupt and disturbing, and not in a traditional “disturbing” manner for a horror film. It’s completely objectionable, and is a disappointing end to what is otherwise an intriguing horror film.
And that’s the thing. Lights Out is surprisingly effective up until the end, even when it leans into some horror clichés. The use of lighting is varied throughout the film, which makes different scenes play out a bit differently from one another. The kids are fast learners, which largely means they avoid a lot of the “white people in horror movies” tropes that seem to haunt horror films from major studios. It’s pretty familiar fare, but interesting enough to keep audiences entertained.