For a movie that relies so heavily on a single, not especially groundbreaking visual effect - now you see the bogeyman, now you don’t – “Lights Out” is crazy scary.
The film’s central conceit of a mysterious, malevolent figure who appears only when the lights are out, and who disappears, physically as well as visibly, with the flip of a light switch, is enormously, even irrationally, effective. Just because you know how the scare works - and work it does, again and again and again, in this low-tech yet artful feature debut by David F. Sandberg – that doesn’t lessen the satisfyingly creepy impact of the trick.
Produced by horror impresario James Wan of “The Conjuring” as an expansion of Sandberg’s acclaimed, less-than-three-minute-long 2013 short, “ ights Out” sounds, on paper, fairly preposterous: A rebellious young woman and her dutiful little brother (Teresa Palmer and Gabriel Bateman) are terrorized by a woman – who may be dead, supernatural, metaphorical or some combination of all three. Called Diana, she’s a (possibly imaginary) friend of their mentally unstable mother (Maria Bello), whose refusal to take her medication has been making Diana’s appearances increasingly frequent and terrifying.
The back story – which screenwriter Eric Heisserer unpeels, in flashback, less skillfully than Sandberg’s stylish, exquisitely controlled direction deserves – has something to do with Mom’s previous commitment to a mental institution, a character with a rare and implausible skin condition, and an experimental medical treatment that goes horribly, tragically awry.
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You know what? You won’t care about any of that once things get going. In a brisk 81 minutes, Sandberg spins this shivery campfire yarn with such skill and verve that the only thing that matters is making it to the final “boo.” Fortunately, the frights are supplemented by strong, nuanced performances by Bello, Palmer and, especially, Bateman, each of whom delivers a character portrayal that defies horror stereotyping of the wacko, the bad girl and the helpless child.
As the older sister’s preternaturally loyal boyfriend, Alexander DiPersia is also surprisingly good, in a role that could so easily have become the weaselly caricature we have seen so often. “Lights Out” also gives him the movie’s best light-related sight gag, during the film’s nerve-wracking climax. And yes, the movie is funny too, in a way that’s not just carefully modulated to counterbalance the drumbeat of frights, but also well earned. “Lights Out” deserves to be considered in the company of such recent horror standouts as “It Follows,” “The Babadook,” “Goodnight Mommy” and “The Witch.”
Sandberg manipulates every kind of balky light you can imagine – flickering lamps, weak flashlights, a dusty black light from someone’s hippie past, flashing neon signs, candles in the wind, remote-activated headlights, even the glowing screen of a smartphone – to achieve his end. That goal is to make you jump, scream and then sit, breathless, on the edge of your seat in anticipation of the next, inevitable – yet inevitably rattling – start.
Just when you think that the tightening knot between your shoulder blades can’t take any more punishment, the lights in the theater come back on. But that sense of being spooked – not profoundly or even permanently, but sweetly – will linger, even as you unwind, deep into the night.
Rated PG-13. Contains terror and violence, disturbing thematic material, a brief drug reference and some strong language.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.