David F. Sandberg’s feature directorial debut, Lights Out is a horror gem. The film is based on the 2013 short film of the same name that was also directed by Sandberg. Along with The Shallows, Lights Out may very well be another summer sleeper hit. The film examines our fears of the dark, particularly when the lights are switched off with a combination of mental illness and hysteria. Perhaps what causes those fears are the fears of the unknown and what we cannot see. Our minds make us think that there might be something (usually bad, negative or evil) lurking around us. Most of the time we think to ourselves and reassure ourselves that if we feel or see something, it’s only our imagination. On the other hand, could these be instances where perhaps we do see something malevolent?
The plot of Lights Out is fairly simple. Members of a dysfunctional family see a strange weirdly shaped female silhouette when the lights are turned off.
Often times, the female’s silhouette is seen, other times scratching on the floor is heard. The members of the family include the mother, Sophie, played by Maria Bello. Sophie suffers from a mental illness, possibly depression. Then there is the son and brother, Martin, played by Gabriel Bateman. Martin, who was living with his mother, decided to live with his sister Rebecca instead, after many sleepless nights and encounters with the female entity. Lastly, we have Rebecca, played by Teresa Palmer, who is somewhat estranged from her mother and has also had encounters with the female entity as can be seen by some scratches on one of her arms and during a flashback scene. Rebecca’s semi-boyfriend, Bret, played by Alexander DiPersia, who is loyal but somewhat of a dork follows along and attempts to help both Rebecca and Martin determine who the entity is, how to get rid of the female entity and how the entity is connected to Sophie. Throughout the film, it is known that Sophie has and can communicate with the female entity as if she’s some kind of imaginary friend. Later on in the film, we find out that Sophie and the female entity had spent time together while institutionalized in a mental hospital. What is frightening, but also clever is that the horror cliche of the imaginary friend has been broken. This time, the mentally ill mother has an imaginary friend as opposed to the vulnerable little boy. Knowing that the mother has a mental illness, a question arises. That question is, is the mother imagining the female entity, which we later find out is named Diana, as a result for her mental illness or is Diana in fact real? “Real” as in a spirit, ghost or other demonic force that can be seen and felt by others, not only in Sophie’s mind?
Lights Out doesn’t necessarily offer anything new or original, but the way Sandberg and the writer of the film, Eric Heisserer handle and execute the horror conventions makes the film very well made. Being a lower budget horror film with a $5 million budget, the film delivers the horror conventions in a minimalist but very effective manner. Sandberg and Heisserer don’t over do it. They throw the scares and jumps only when they need to and leave the rest to the imagination and interpretation of the audience, which is what every great horror film should do. There are a few moments when the film tends to get a bit campy, but it’s all in good taste. Everything in this film is superb. From the technical side of the filmmaking process to the conceptual creative process. The execution of the writing, directing and acting are all excellent.
Besides being a horror film showcasing a demonic female entity whenever the lights are turned off, the film is also a brilliant examination of the family dynamics with their distinct problems, the main problem being mental illness. On a filmmaking level, Lights Out shows how a great horror concept can be done on a low budget minimalist scare without having to go over the top and with loads of exaggeration. See the film for a genuinely good scare of things that go bump in the night but also for the perils of mental illness and disturbances.