After a shadowy figure attacks and brutally murders her stepfather (Billy Burke), rebellious rock chick Rebecca (Theresa Palmer) finds herself called to a meeting at half-brother Martin’s (Gabriel Bateman) school with concerned school nurse Emma (English stand-up Andi Osho). Martin’s been nodding off, falling asleep during lessons, and Emma hasn’t been able to get hold of Rebecca and Martin’s widowed mother Sophie (Maria Bello) to come pick Martin up.
Estranged from Sophie for years, Rebecca learns that Martin is too terrified to sleep at home, is kept awake by weird scratching noises and things going bump in the night. Plagued by decades of mental health issues, the increasingly erratic and disturbed Sophie is off her meds, spends all her time holed up in her bedroom talking to imaginary friend Diana, a figure Rebecca is still traumatised by from her own troubled childhood.
A malevolent spirit who may just be a manifestation of Sophie’s fractured psyche, Diana is a croaking, taloned silhouette who exists only in the shadows and wants Sophie all to herself. Even if that means killing her children…
An expansion of his acclaimed three-minute 2013 short, writer/director David F Sandberg’s Light Out is a dumb, derivative, claustrophobic little chiller that plays on our basest fears, the fear of the dark, the fear that a beloved parent may want to hurt us, to supply a succession of mechanically effective scares, finding increasingly inventive ways (a wind-up torch, the pulsing of a neon sign, a motion detector) to essentially recycle the central conceit of something scary lunging at us from the dark, Sandberg employing a refreshing less-is-more attitude towards his monster, relying on practical effects and lighting rather than CGI, never allowing us a decent look at her until the finale.
Like Jennifer Kent’s shrill, hugely over-rated The Babadook, Lights Out’s equation of experience of depression and a mental health issue with a self-manifested murderous supernatural entity, a metaphorical dark shadow that can be banished by turning on the lights, leaves a slightly nasty taste in the mouth but Sandberg at least has the courage to follow the concept through to it’s logical, and almost casually brutal, nihilistic denouement.
The performances are uniformly good, Palmer making a strong, spiky heroine and Alexander DiPersia’s nice guy boyfriend is a refreshingly sweet presence you actually want to see make it to the final reel while Gabriel Bateman’s Martin is that rare thing in a horror movie – a child protagonist you don’t immediately want dead (God, I hated that little shit in The Babdook!). The film belongs however to Maria Bello as the barely controlled Sophie; there hasn’t been a woman this under the influence since Gena Rowlands and she grounds the film, providing it’s most quietly terrifying moment when she passes her daughter a note that reads “I need help.” It’s a simple beat but subtly devastating.
While Insidious and Saw producer James Wan’s DNA may be splashed liberally over the film like a hotel duvet under a Jackson Pollock-revealing blacklight, Lights Out is a lean, tight, nimble little horror flick that’s like The Babadook, but good, and at 80 minutes never has time to wear out its welcome.