Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
We’ve all been there: Startled awake in the middle of the night only to spot some kind of dark shadowy figure lurking deep down a hallway, or maybe in your periphery when you get up to use the bathroom. 99.9% of the time it’s nothing. But there’s always that off chance it could be something. Director David F. Sandberg’s LIGHTS OUT toys with our minds, playing upon our deep-seated fear of the dark. Those gloomy recesses are terrifying for a reason. Basically, this is nightmare fuel for everyone whose eyesight is as bad as mine. We are collectively this chicken meme, running to get back into bed, ducking under the covers for shelter.
Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) has experienced horrors we’ll never know. Her scarred arms subtly tell that tale. Despite being reticent to admit it, she’s in a loving long-term relationship with boyfriend Brett (Alexander DiPersia). The biggest problem in her world is getting over commitment-phobia. That is until her younger half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) shows up, begging for her help. Seems their mother Sophie (Maria Bello) has fallen into the deep end, talking to herself – possibly someone, or rather, something – in the dark, succumbing to her depression after the recent death of her second husband. Rebecca is forced to return home, reuniting with her estranged mom, in order to unlock the truth about the mysterious entity plaguing the family.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (FINAL DESTINATION 5) has fashioned a clean, succinct, self-contained and smart chiller. It’s a refreshing change of pace that the opening sequence (set in a nightmare factory – a textile manufacturing company industrial warehouse) actually impacts the narrative. It’s not just padding. Most modern horror films avoid over-sexualizing their leading lady, so it’s great this continues that and never plays Rebecca as a damsel in distress. The role reversal of the woman having commitment issues and her boyfriend being the stereotypically “clingy” one is perfection. Not only is Rebecca a fully capable badass, Sophie, while crumbling psychologically, healthily confesses her feelings about not being strong to her son. That’s fully realized parenting. Of course that’s her lead-in to trusting Martin with her deep-rooted secret – but still. She’s open-hearted and Bello plays it with restraint.
LIGHTS OUT really shines a light on horror done right. Genre tropes are evident but they don’t stand out as such. There are metaphors and allusions made throughout. The creepy, destructive and deadly monster represents depression and grief. These feelings can always be around if you succumb to them. The dank-but-gorgeous mission style house is a character in itself. Closets hold skeletons of the past, steeled away in the dark. When we finally find ourselves in the home’s basement (a basement! In Los Angeles!), it’s like going into its brain. While there are the pre-requisite jump scares, they are backed up by intelligence. There are some really solid, clever tension relief bits too, dealing with the characters’ resourcefulness (though, side note, I will say a child should never sleep next to an open flame). The denouement is unexpectedly gut-wrenching, totally dark and seriously shocking. Plus, Sandberg’s film is brisk, clocking in at 81 minutes.
Will this scare you so bad it’ll keep you up at night, sleeping with the lights on? Possibly. But guaranteed, it’ll make you think twice about going into a pitch-black room with no light source.
LIGHTS OUT opens on July 22.