The offensive truth about ‘Lights Out’: A couple of scares, but mostly bland and accidentally mean

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Recommendation: Watch “The Babadook” instead for similar ideas in a much better movie

 

When I bought my ticket to “Lights Out” a theater employee said, “Watch out, your power bill is about to go way up because you’ll never want to turn your lights off!”

If only. “Lights Out” isn’t scary or particularly engaging, and whatever cleverness it does have is offset by some weird, disgruntling choices.

Things start off bloody when a man is grotesquely murdered in a fabric warehouse. His young son Martin (played by the delightful Gabriel Bateman, who’s a pretty great kid actor) is left alone with his well-meaning, but totally unhinged mother Sophie (Maria Bello). Sophie has suffered from depression her whole life and now spends her days locked in a dark room talking to a demonic figure named Diana, who stalks around the house at night, terrifying Martin. He enlists the help of his estranged older sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) who was also haunted by Diana as a child. With her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) in tow they set out to finally rid themselves of the nightmarish creature that feeds off their mother’s depression.

“Lights Out” is unfortunately vanilla until it suddenly, shockingly makes a statement– but not in a good way. It has no grasp of character or any self-awareness, to the point that it seemingly accidentally advocates that people suffering from depression should kill themselves. And worse, it’s not even scary!

Let’s get right to the spooks: there aren’t many. Diana is a shadow creature that is burned by light and forced to move in the shadows. This is a pretty cool concept with a lot of potential. Unfortunately “Lights Out” doesn’t live up to its premise and instead relies on a lot of jump scares, which– as you dear readers already know from, like, all of my other reviews– I don’t particularly like. Part of the problem is it cares a lot about backstory, and Rebecca spends so much of her time trying to explain things that jump scares might be the only way to keep a solid third of the movie in the category of “horror.” They’re not effective, really mild spooks at best, so it’s annoying that the movie has so many of them.

To be fair this is a debut from a guy who’s only ever made one movie before, the original “Lights Out” short film that got movie companies involved in the first place. Apparently producer James Wan gave him a fair amount of leeway, that way he could truly fulfil his artistic vision or whatever, so I give him credit for the couple of scary moments it does have.

Diana does shine as a monster in the few suspenseful scenes in which the horror is allowed time to breathe. The opener when Daddy gets offed, for example, is a drawn out, tense affair with flickering motion-sensor lights that genuinely spooked me, and the final battle gave me a few moments of shivers. If Sandberg had given each scare enough time, more space, he could have upped the tension tenfold, left me gripping my seat.

The lack of scares makes “Lights Out”’s flimsy characters and wacked out plot more upsetting. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, none of it well managed. In the fore is the backstory of Sophie’s long relationship with Diana, fodder for plenty of unnecessary exposition—we’re not dumb, we get it, thanks. Then there’s a weird side thing about Rebecca being flighty and not wanting to commit to Bret, who just wants to love her forever.

I’m still not really sure why Bret’s there at all, but the easiest explanation is “Lights Out”’s stupidity extends to every piece of it, not just its careless ending.

To be clear, I’m trying to be kind when I call it stupid. It’s a nicer explanation than “’Lights Out’ has it in for people with mental illness,” which is a totally viable second option.

Diana easily plays as an allegory for depression. She only shows up when Sophie is off her anti-depressants and struggling to stay in control of her disease. She also tries to destroy the people around Sophie so that the two can be alone together, and she stays in the darkness, dragging Sophie along with her.

The resolution offers a disturbingly hopeless view of Sophie’s ability to survive her depression, to put it lightly. Again, I’m chalking this up to screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s inability to read his own subtext. Eric, really, you should know better. The optimist in me, however, can’t accept that you or anyone involved actually holds this view of depressed people.

Nonetheless the ending scars this already flawed movie. Sitting in the theater (which was notably full of laughter—apparently my audience found it more of a comedy than horror), I felt the urge to just re-watch Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” a better horror movie about depression that’s bleak but more aware of its conclusions.

Unless you’re really in love with un-scary horror movies, “Lights Out” isn’t worth box office prices. Stay at home and watch something that’ll actually make you scared of the dark.

 

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