Lights Out December 6, 2016
The horror genre has never pretended to be anything other than unabashed in its love of preying upon our inherent fear of the dark, but 2016’s Lights Out takes the trope a step further and makes its central villain nearly synonymous with atmospheric blackness. Clever and concise — clocking at a welcomely skinny eighty-one minutes — the film is a rarely to-the-point delicacy good at giving us the right dosage of adrenaline without losing its immeasurable hold over us.
Utilizing a minuscule but intimately characterized ensemble as a way to fuel its sense of urgency, Lights Out stars the undervalued Teresa Palmer as Rebecca, a young woman forced to act as the temporary guardian to her baby brother, the precocious Martin (Gabriel Bateman), after their mother’s (Maria Bello) history of mental illness begins to rev up to its worst setting. This is no coincidence, either: Rebecca and Martin’s father (Billy Burke) recently passed away as a result of very mysterious circumstances.
But shortly into her first few moments as a quasi-mother does Rebecca begin to notice that the situation in front of her is not necessarily the result of a woman’s being both a hazard to herself and others. The situation in front of her might also very well be rooted in a sort of inexplicable supernaturalism that has the great potential to put her life, as well as the lives of her loved ones, into considerable danger.
What that considerable danger is is much more ingenious than it has any right to be, and I won’t dare explicitly reveal what writer Eric Heisserer has locked and loaded for us. All that can be shared is that his frighteningly fleshed out antagonist can only serve as a phantom menace when in the dark — turn on the lights and all is safe and sound. But turn them off and you might as well consider yourself dead. And if that isn’t a smart move for a genre consistently in need of something in the way of reinvention, then I might as well start calling Friday the 13th (1980) original.
Its thrills are grave and abidingly astute — I love the way an attack can be effectively interrupted by a well timed flicker of a flashlight or by the frantic flipping up of a light switch — and its performances are unusually memorable for a movie meant to be so economic and breezily suspenseful (Palmer, in particular, is a heroic tour-de-force). Maybe its ending is a little too easy for the genre, which is at its most killer when the defeating of a villain isn’t all that much of a sure thing. But denying the persuasiveness of Lights Out would be an insult to Heisserer’s thoughtful screenplay and David F. Sandberg’s stylistically savvy direction. This is one of the year’s horror standouts, unmistakably. B