Before we go any further, you should definitely take a moment and watch the two-minute short where the idea for Lights Out originated - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUQhNGEu2KA . It really is an absolute master class in short horror films, delivering non-stop suspense with a truly effective payoff. It wasn’t surprising to find out the idea was going to be stretched to feature length and any worry they wouldn’t be able to sustain that level of suspense for a full movie can be put aside. Partly that’s because this movie is barely feature length, clocking in at 80 minutes with the credits. Mostly though it’s because Lights Out is a great example of making the most of a good idea.
Lights Out contains a scary central concept that nearly anyone can relate to – something evil is lurking in the dark and light is the only way to prevent it from murdering you. You hear that and you immediately get it. We all know that the dark is a huge asshole that wants us dead so this is something we can all get behind. It’s an idea we’ve seen done in the past of course (for some reason that tooth fairy themed movie Darkness Falls sticks out for me, even though it’s been 10 years since I watched and disliked it), but I can’t recall anything else executing on it quite this well.
No I don’t watch Dr. Who. Yes I know what the Weeping Angels are. No I don’t know if that’s better than this. Just wanted to get ahead of this!
A movie this short does not have a lot of time for narrative, but what’s here does the job well enough. Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) has moved away from home after dealing with a variety of family issues, most having to do with the fact that her mother seems connected to a creepy demon/ghost lady who hangs around in the dark all the time. After the death of her step father (depicted in a very effective opening scene), her Mom (Maria Bello, who it feels like I haven’t seen in a while) starts to spend all her day in her dark room, talking with her friend “Diana”. Her son is concerned and seeks help from Rebecca and her boyfriend. Shit quickly gets real bad and they got this pain in the ass ghost lady all up in their business 24/7.
These certainly aren’t fully developed characters and the story isn’t going to be what attracts most people to this movie, but I was surprised at how much attention was given to both these elements. Everyone is likable and easy to root for, and I was particularly surprised by the boyfriend character. I kept waiting for the moment where he revealed himself to be an asshole. He would be mean to the younger brother, he would call Rebecca crazy for believing in Diana, he would screw everybody over by turning the lights off because he doesn’t believe in any of this bullshit, etc. That moment never came. He is supportive, believes Rebecca because he has no reason to think she would make this up (something I’ve complained about in horror movies for years, seriously why would your significant other be lying about this?!) and also proves to be useful during key moments. Well done boyfriend character! I’m very sorry that I can’t remember your actual character name!
So the characters and story are decent, but of course the main appeal is Diana. She’s certainly a creepy creation. A tall, gangly, wild looking monster with claws and glowing eyes who moves like a jerky, J-horror ghost, it’s one of the last things that you would want stalking you in the dark. With every flash of light she will vanish, with much of the suspense coming from where exactly she will end up when the lights blink back on. They rely on that trick an awful lot but here’s the thing – it’s a really good trick.
Diana doesn’t need an entire room to be shrouded in darkness for her to manifest. It just needs to be a darkened area. She can hide in a closet or even in the corner of a room where the light can’t reach. This means the main characters are never truly safe. Most horror movies have downtime, usually in the middle of the day or in the morning, where you know nothing scary can happen. That’s not the case with Lights Out. The characters are always in danger and the movie makes it clear that Diana can be, and likely is, hiding anywhere at anytime. No matter how many times they go back to the well of having a light flicker or fade, it works, and I found myself constantly scanning the frame to see if I could spot where Diana would be lurking.
The final act is a whole lot of fun, taking place entirely within Rebecca’s home as the protagonists try desperately to stay in the light as they try and figure out how to take Diana down. At this point the movie becomes a fun house ride, providing relentless scares as it barrels towards an admittedly unsatisfying (and apparently controversial) ending. Still though, the ride there more than makes up for it.
Lights Out gets in, gets the job done and then immediately gets out. It’s proof that horror doesn’t need to be game changing or ground breaking. Sometimes all you need is some well executed scares and Lights Out delivers them handily, while also providing just enough story and character work to make it more than just a series of jump scares. It’s a run ride that I can easily recommend!