Campy thrills abound in jump scare-heavy 'Lights Out'
Posted July 25, 2016
“LIGHTS OUT” — 2½ stars — Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello; PG-13 (terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material and brief drug content); in general release
“Lights Out” is one of the best bad horror movies to come out in some time. For a movie that is so dependent on routine jump scares, it’s actually pretty fun when it lets its stringy, ghoulish hair down.
The film is built around a mysterious entity named Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) that appears as a creepy silhouette when the lights are turned off. Flip the lights on, and you’re fine. But once the lights go out, trouble follows.
The entity — which was human before it crossed into the realm of the supernatural — has attached itself to a troubled mother named Sophie (Maria Bello). As children, Sophie and Diana spent time in the same mental hospital when Sophie was being treated for depression. But Diana — who suffered from a rare skin condition that made her especially vulnerable to sunlight — turned a casual friendship into a territorial horror show.
Sophie’s husband Paul (Billy Burke) finds out about Diana’s possessive nature in the film’s opening sequence, and afterward Diana turns her jealous rage on Sophie’s young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Diana’s presence seems to be connected to Sophie’s latest bout with depression and to her son’s horror, Sophie seems perfectly fine with Diana’s presence in their home. So Martin turns to his stepsister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) for help.
Rebecca is a moody 20-something with abandonment issues. Her father walked out on her and her mother years ago, which explains Rebecca’s unwillingness to commit to a relationship with her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia). Rebecca also has a history with Diana, which explains her obsession with the disturbing Goth art that’s plastered all over her apartment. But compared to Diana’s antics, Rebecca’s posters are a welcome change for Martin.
From this basic setup, the plot of “Lights Out” is really just a matter of first finding out what Diana is, then figuring out how to get rid of her. The routine is complicated by Sophie’s reluctance to cooperate, but for the most part, “Lights Out” isn’t all that different from your standard ghost movie.
There are a couple of things that help it, though. The lights-on/lights-off concept for Diana makes the film extremely predictable — there isn’t a single jump you won’t see coming a mile away, though the screeching soundtrack will probably make you cringe whether you’re scared or not. But director David F. Sandberg understands this dynamic enough to have some fun with it, and there are a handful of moments — including a great gag involving Bret’s remote car key fob — that are real camp.
On a metaphoric level, “Lights Out” also has some surprising depth. It’s easy to read Diana as the physical embodiment of Sophie’s depression, and even as a cheesy horror movie, it’s interesting to watch the film as an illustration of coping with mental illness.
Horror movies of this ilk have never been known for great acting or great plot, and if you ask too many questions in “Lights Out,” you’ll find plenty of holes. But most everyone carries their weight, and Palmer is appealing as Rebecca.
None of these elements is quite enough to label “Lights Out” as a great horror film. But in the middle of a mediocre summer season, “Lights Out” is good for some cheap thrills. With a little more work, it could have been something really special. But it’s still a step above its B-movie horror peers.
“Lights Out” is rated PG-13 for terror throughout, violence, including disturbing images, some thematic materials and brief drug content; running time: 81 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.