For the bulk of its runtime, Lights Out is a very old-fashioned and very clever horror movie.
The basic premise of Lights Out is quite clever, even on its own terms. The central antagonist of the film is a demonic entity that seems to move through darkness. Characters are safe from its influence so long as they remain in the light. It is a very smart riff on a primal fear. The fear of darkness is the most primal of fears, the anxiety about the unknown and what might lurk in the shadows. Lights Out takes that universal fear and mines it for scares, in a fashion that is very classic while also quite clever.
The premise alone is enough to drive Lights Out, to power an eighty-one-minute horror film. However, director David Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer go a great deal further. In the style of many classic horror stories, Lights Out positions its demon as an allegorical device. This demon that stalks its prey through darkness is treated as an apt metaphor for depression, a creature that has latched on to a small suburban family and tormented them quietly for years. It is a premise that The Babadook used to great effect, and it adds a little extra heft to Lights Out.
However, there is a sense that Lights Out is just a little bit too clever for its own good. The film follows its basic premise to a very clever and innovative conclusion within the world that it has created. The problem is that the movie’s final big plot development rather brutally undercuts the central allegory in such a way that the film trips over its own wit. Still, discounting those final few minutes, Lights Out is a visceral thrill-ride and a joy from start to almost-finish.
One of the most endearing aspects of Lights Out is how taut the finished film is. Recent years have seen movie runtimes extend across the board. This is most obvious in summer blockbusters, but it also applies to horror movies and comedies. Perhaps motivated by a desire to offer viewers some measurable return on investment, movie runtimes have become increasingly bloated. Judd Apatow comedies are perhaps the best example of this, stretching about ninety minutes of material over two hours.
With that in mind, there is something very effective about the decision to keep Lights Out so trim and efficient. The movie clocks in at just over an hour and twenty minutes. The premise could easily have been extended past that, but Sandberg and Heisserer are shrewd in that regard. Lights Out does not go on a second longer than it needs to, and it wastes no time in setting up its premise and executing its scares. The result is a film that never meanders or never gets lost down cul de sacs.
The premise of Lights Out is incredibly versatile. A small family find themselves menaced by a silhouette that in only visible in certain lighting conditions. Turn the light on, the spectre disappears; turn the light back off, the spectre has moved. The monster has the ability to hide everywhere. Lights Out constantly draws the audience’s attention to the small dark spaces lurking in even the brightest frame; the negative space over a character’s shoulder, the shadow under the bed, the space behind the door.
The movie’s abbreviated runtime means that these scares and sequences arrive in rapid succession. Lights Out breezes through a variety of clever “it’s behind you!” or “its right there!” scares with reckless abandon. A longer movie would have to ration those scares, spreading them further apart to pad out a film and sapping any momentum. Thanks to a very tight edit, Lights Out is able to hit those beats one after another after another. There is very rarely time for the audience to catch their breath before the next scare pops up.
This speed helps to compensate for some of the issues with the contemporary horrors; the requirement that modern monsters come with extensive back story and documentation. Lights Out breaks out its monster early enough and consistently enough that the “rules” are quite clear from the outset. When the movie finds itself required to explain the monster during the second act, it spares the audience the indignity of an exposition-spouting “expert” in the paranormal or a suspiciously accurate web search.
Instead, our heroes literally find a box the explains everything. This is very much a plot contrivance, but the movie travels so fast that it does not matter. The most important thing is that the film conveys the information to the audience so that it can get back to building tension and delivering scares. The convenience of a box full of exposition is a necessary evil, but one that the film is charming enough to pull off. It is a testament to the skill of director David Sandberg that it works so very well.
The film would work reasonably well from that basic premise, but Lights Out demonstrates an attention to detail that is sorely lacking from many contemporary horror films. The characters inhabiting the film make sense, and feel real. Rebecca is a young woman with commitment issues, still coping with the abandonment by her father and the psychological breakdown of her mother. Sophie is paranoid and depressive, locked up in a nice house in California with her son Bret. When Bret has trouble sleeping, sensing something in the house, Rebecca steps in.
With eighty minutes of runtime and a high concept to explain, it is remarkable that Lights Out can sketch its dysfunctional family dynamic so effectively. The family at the centre of the film is not haunted by a literal demon or a malevolent poltergeist. Instead, the spectre that has taken root in the family home is the literal embodiment of Sophie’s depression. It is that darkness that has harmed her family. It is that monster that has left scars; those scars are sometimes physical, as the scenes introducing Rebecca demonstrate.
Casting is key here. Teresa Palmer and Maria Bello make a fantastic mother-and-daughter team, bouncing off one another in their confrontations. Both Palmer and Bello layer nuance into their performances, suggesting years of bitterness and recriminations underpinning the interactions driven by the plot of the film. Palmer is an exceptionally impressive horror protagonist, while Bello conveys a desperation and vulnerability that affords Sophie a surprising depth of character in her supporting role.
The idea of casting the monster at the centre of Lights Out as an allegory for depression is an inspired touch, even if it is ground that The Babadook covered with more nuance. The metaphor is effective and harrowing, a literalisation of the way that depression can come to dominate a person’s life and serve to cut them off from the very people who would try to help them. Depression is an illness that hinders its own recovery. “Why did you hurt Sophie?” a character asks the monster at one point in the story. It replies simply, “Because she was getting better.”
At the same time, the allegory becomes problematic towards the climax of the film. Lights Out ends with a very bold and striking storytelling choice. In terms of the world that the film creates, the choice is inspired. Narratively speaking, it is an ending that is at once very clever and perfectly in keeping with the “rules” as the film laid out. However, the ending becomes severely problematic in the context of the movie’s central allegory. Following the allegory through the movie’s conclusion is harrowing and unsettling, feeling clumsy and ill-judged.
Still, Lights Out works phenomenally well until it reaches that incredibly problematic closing story beat. It is a very clever and very dark little horror film.