'Lights Out' successfully lights up our anxiety about the dark
“Lights Out” (2016) – I once dated a woman who told me, “I am afraid of the dark and sleep with the lights on.”
At that moment, two thoughts came to mind.
One, her statement is interesting, and I don’t mean interesting in a good way.
Two, I have seen way too many horror movies, so I absolutely do not want to know the reason why.
Well, “Lights Out” gives everyone a really, really convincing reason why to be afraid of the dark.
Director David F. Sandberg is not afraid to waste any time in amping up our angst.
As his film opens, a malevolent entity suddenly and dramatically appears in a clothing factory, with only one worker and the boss still hanging around after hours.
Sandberg plays with our senses, as a black outline of this thing can be seen in the shadows but disappears when the factory employee (Lotta Losten) flips on the light switch.
As she repeatedly flips the switch - between off and on - the creature also materializes and disappears in kind, but it methodically edges closer and closer to this potential victim in a most unsettling way.
This is an important establishing scene, because it shows the audience that this supernatural villain is only dangerous in the dark.
In other words, keep the lights on!
The movie then turns to Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) – an edgy 20-something - and her preteen brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), and they learn in a hurry to keep the lights on as well, as this thing – named Diana, actually – soon terrorizes them.
Diana’s connection to the siblings is because of their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello).
Sophie has unfortunately suffered from mental illness for most of her life, and with the recent loss of her husband, she again relapses into some dark, emotional places (pardon the pun) which absolutely does not help.
Without much capable support from their mom, it is up to Rebecca and Martin to stop Diana.
“Lights Out” does not stop too often to expand its universe outside of this small family, sans Rebecca’s boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), who admittedly comes off as the most unbelievably understanding dating suitor in human history.
Now, with a runtime of a scant 1 hour 21 minutes, Sandberg is keenly frugal with his time and sets up some truly frightening sequences between Sophie, Rebecca, Martin, and Bret versus Diana that play with distance and light.
Anytime any of these characters – even casually – steps into a shadow, I wanted to yell at the screen, “What are you thinking? Step into the light!”
Now, the film uses many of the usual ideas that we have previously seen in horror films.
For example, complete silence in Sophie’s house (which conveniently resembles a mausoleum) is broken by the creak of an opening door or stepped-upon floorboard.
Piercing screeches help assist several jump-scares too, but Diana’s reaction to light makes this film somewhat different.
The safety of light - any light - and the threat of darkness create a “safe zone” and “danger zone” element in every moment in the film, and I constantly and nervously kept one eye on the on-screen events and the other on exactly where light and darkness fell.
It adds another dimension to the dramatic tension and a way for the protagonists to fight back when needed, and Sandberg conjures up creative and anxiety-filled scenes that directly engage with this concept.
“Lights Out” completely succeeds in its goal: It frightens the audience for just over 80 minutes in a no-frills horror show with limited appearances of blood and heaps of stress instead.
Looking back, I wonder if my previous dating partner had a “Diana” stalking her in the dark.
Never mind, I am thankful that I did not ask. (3/4 stars)
Image credits: Warner Bros.