“Lights Out,” directed by David Sandberg, isn’t sure if it wants to be a horror movie or an imitation Tennessee Williams drama.
Sandberg is a Swedish director who first conceived “Lights Out” as a critically acclaimed horror short, released in 2013. It’s since been stretched to feature length with a very un-Swedish cast of Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman and Maria Bello.
Palmer plays Rebecca, whose sharp but soft eyeliner and thick, stylishly mussed hair identify her as our heroine, and whose black wardrobe and Avenged Sevenfold poster identify her as an unfit guardian for her plucky young half-brother Martin, played by Bateman.
Martin has been living with their depressed mother Sophie, played by Bello, whose mental state has worsened since the violent death of her husband. Sophie’s delusions revolve around her apparently imaginary friend Diana, to whom Martin hears her speak when she’s locked in her bedroom.
When Child Protective Services intervene, Rebecca arrives on the scene with her PG-13 boyfriend Bret, played by Alexander DiPersia, a blithe and reliable off-brand Daario Naharis who provides a necessary third party to the clunky family drama at the heart of “Lights Out.”
Diana, the light-repulsed fiend of the film, is a serviceable villain. She comes with an origin story that has her homicidally possessive of Sophie, and her appearances in expertly-cast shadows are chilling.
One jump scare made me jump so much I pulled a leg muscle. But Diana’s mythology is detailed enough to really cut back on the terror, and its logical leaps happily distracted me from some terrible dramatic writing.
Rebecca’s attempts to rescue Martin are the latest addition in a family history of mistrust that has Rebecca afraid of commitment and responsibility.
Diana probably scared me most when she interrupted these painstaking emotional discussions. A horror film should lull you into a false sense of security, not a real sense of boredom.
Bateman is the strongest performer in this movie. Martin’s somber acceptance of the role reversal that has him reminding Sophie to take her antidepressants is heartbreaking, and much more engaging than Rebecca and Bret’s informed chemistry.
“Lights Out” succeeds, as many horror films do, in being horrifyingly ableist. Rebecca easily slings “crazy” and “nut job” when describing her mother, and the implication that Diana is Sophie’s depression manifest as a literal threat to her family makes the film’s too-neat ending troubling at best.
firstname.lastname@example.org | @kdlrose
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