Flashback to 2016!! (or don't it was a sucky year...). The year offered us quite a few movies of various quality and sometimes controversy, with films like Arrival blowing the Sci-Fi genre out of the water and Kubo and the Two Strings offering a musical and artistic approach to classic stop-motion animation. In the horror genre however, it was slim pickings with another Purge movie (yawn) and the surprisingly solid return-to-form for M. Night with Split, one of his most popular movies in years. So lying right under the radar, most of us missed one of the best horror movies of the last ten years. Enter Lights Out. Or Exit Light, Enter Night?
Lights Out is a lean 81 minute feature film by newcomer David F. Sandberg, who went on to direct both Annabelle: Creation and Shazam! to very favorable reviews. The film adapted the lean story of a short film on the same subject, to which some critics would argue is a better format for the film's stretched narrative. The short film was very successful.
"Sandberg, along with his wife Lotta Losten, created the initial short film for a film competition. Although the film did not win the competition, the short soon went viral, leading to Sandberg to be contacted by several agents, to the point where he had to develop a spreadsheet to keep track of them all.."
Below is a scary image from the short... (you've been warned.)
The decided upon team would start in 2015 and would go on to produce a simple and effective horror movie on a budget of only 4.9 million, which is rare to see in the mainstream Hollywood circuit. Solid horror has been made for less, but what stands apart for Lights Out is its wide 2,900 theater release. The film would explode to a world-wide $148.9 million dollar success, and put the director on the map with a Palm Springs International Film Festival award for "Directors to Watch". Of course with the award garnered and the overall profitable release, it may seem like my point for saying this movie is slept on is moot. However in the last 5 years I've heard very little appreciation for this film online or in the horror-community. What's even more surprising was its dismissal from the Top Lists of the 2010's. Personally I feel like this is one of the most uniquely effective horror films of the 2000's and should not be missed by newcomers who didn't catch it in the theaters.
Let me start with setting up the simple premise. The film stars our lead Teresa Palmer as Rebecca who's brother is dealing with custody issues while also juggling sleeping issues and distractions at school. She wants to support her brother Martin and put him in a good home, but their shared mother suffers from depression and Rebecca isn't considered by the social workers as an adequate guardian given her living situation. Enter the ghost. The film's antagonistic spirit exists as a shadow being (something we've certainly all seen before) and is named Diana. Diana's past includes the haunting of her mother, then thought to be an imaginary friend until Martin starts losing sleep over Diana too. While the story does not seem unique, the film steps in with a set of rules and simple premise: in the dark, she can kill you and in the light, she cannot.
While this sounds basic the film takes extremely fun mechanics to approach the rules of the game. We start by escaping through slowly burnt out factory bulbs in an escape for the last existing lit one. The tension builds from the first five minutes in a set-piece that includes electrical problems. As the movie goes on we are on the edge of our seats begging for our protagonists to keep from the cover of darkness but are gleefully scared when the darkness consumes them. Sometimes protection from Diana comes in through the flash of a neon light sign blinking through a window. In one of the most amusing moments, our hero's beau saves himself from being pulled into the air by unlocking his car with a remote, which flashes on him briefly enough to run away. The movie has no reason being this effective over 81 minutes of fear of the dark story-telling but it just is!
What makes a good horror movie is its rules. Stick to the rules and you have an effective concept and a satisfied audience. Where Lights Out works is not just from its solid performances and believable characterization; even the romantic arc is surprisingly unlame. It works because it's legitimately scary. There's no man with a knife or girl crawling through a static TV. There's just a shadow, that can exist anywhere, in any room, at any moment's notice. Even when the backstory of Diana is revealed it doesn't seem to matter. We are already sold by the big bad, partly because we can't see her. What we can't see is always scarier than what we can, because as our imagination runs rampant at the pile of clothes in the corner of our room at night, our imagination takes over. Sandberg isn't afraid to let us rely on our imagination. Horror filmmakers take note.