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Movie Review: Lights Out

Every once in a while, I find myself drawn in by short horror films that pop up on YouTube. Most of them are last only minutes, are quite terrible, climax in some cheap jump scare and vanish from the mind immediately. Others, like Andres Muschietti’s 2008 “Mama” (which later inspired an inferior movie spin-off) are effectively scary and utilize their short running time for maximum dread. There’s also Lou LaVolpe’s 1982 short film “The Dummy,” which is so creepy, it used to air on cable TV before airings of bigger (and typically not as memorable) mainstream horror films. Then there’s David F. Sandberg’s 2013 short film, “Lights Out.” Its only three-minutes long but left me petrified. Now, Sandberg has directed a feature-length extension of his short, which he co-wrote with Eric Heisserer. So how’s the movie? Well, to quote Dan Aykroyd in “Twilight Zone- The Movie”: “Hey…do you want to see something really scary?”

Teresa Palmer stars as a Rebecca, a fiercely independent woman who keeps her adoring boyfriend (played by Alexander DiPersia) at arm’s length. When her little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is too afraid to live at home and falling asleep in school, Rebecca takes him away from their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), who has a history of mental illness. When Rebecca and Martin share their collective memories of growing up, they both recall the presence of a girl named “Diana,” who Sophie still has late night conversations with.

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Rebecca is a character with intriguing layers that the screenplay doesn’t fully develop. It’s a shame, as this is Palmer’s first starring role and she seems up for the challenge. After shining brightly as Christian Bale’s girlfriend in this year’s “Knight of Cups” and surviving last year’s hopeless “Point Break” remake, Palmer deserves a big breakout and this might not be it. Far better is Maria Bello as her mother, a woman profoundly haunted by a toxic relationship from her past.

DiPersia’s somewhat thankless boyfriend role doesn’t give him much to do. However, the screenplay finds a unique way to utilize him during a sequence involving a car headlight. Bateman has one of those great faces that can vividly register fear (he shares this quality with “Jurassic Park” star Joseph Mozello).

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The screenplay has a lot of fun exploiting its premise to the hilt. Sandberg’s visual gimmick, of a monster that lives in the darkness and can’t get you in the light, is effectively carried over from his short film. Although this has more than its share of jump scares, it’s worth noting that even covering your ears won’t protect you from how frightening this gets. Truly, the imagery here is every bit as jolting as the soundtrack’s “scare chords.”

On the surface, this is an effective jump generator but the subtext is smart. Beneath the surface is a cautionary tale about not allowing unwanted “friends” to control our lives.

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“Lights Out” has a similar premise and approach to a little seen, underappreciated horror gem from 2002 called “They.” It was directed by Robert Harmon and unwisely opened on Thanksgiving before vanishing from theaters, “They” was also uncanny in the way it tapped into the universal fear of the dark. While “Lights Out” will probably make a bigger splash than “They,” Harmon’s film has one big advantage over this one: whereas the concluding scenes are overly safe and conventional, the final scene of “They” was wild, ambitious and unusually cruel.

Although “Lights Out” isn’t as scary as James Wan’s “The Conjuring 2” but its best scenes left me shaken. At its best, this is big league scary and as cleverly considered as a great Stephen King tale. An early visual, of a monster’s long fingernails curling over a door frame, is enough to make me wonder if I need to purchase a back-up nightlight.

By the way, its rated PG-13 but seriously parents, do not take your children to see this.

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