Several years ago, in 2013, director David F. Sandberg released a short horror film on YouTube called Lights Out. The film had a simple yet brilliant horror premise – a shadowy monster that only appeared when the lights went out. A viral success, Sandberg’s little short film opened doors for him. With his first feature length directorial film, Sandberg was tasked with turning Lights Out into a feature length film.
Yet expanding a roughly 3-minute short film into an 80 to 90 minute feature poses some obvious challenges. There’s no guarantee that what works in a short format will translate into a full film with all the requisite moving parts.
During a late night shift at a textile factory, manager Paul is murdered by a spectral figure of a woman that seems to only appear in the dark. Paul’s son, Martin, is now left living alone with his mother, Sophie who suffers from serious depression. After receiving a call from Child Protection Services, Martin’s half-sister, Rebecca arrives to find Sophie suffering a serious relapse and Martin terrified of a shadowy figure that only manifests in the shadows. Initially convinced Martin is having nightmares, Rebecca slowly begins to believe that this shadowy figure, “Diana”, may indeed be real.
Sandberg Innovates to Make a Simple Premise Work
Sandberg deserves a lot of credit as a director. He takes his simple short film premise and manages to find a variety of innovative ways to stretch it across the movie. Lights Out boasts several effective jump scares that work just as well on a second viewing. Much of this can be attributed to how Sandberg uses his premise and the way in which he sets up the jumps. Shadowy corners of halls, the underside of beds, and failing flashlight batteries are all employed to nerve-shattering effect.
There isn’t much in the way of atmosphere or mood. Sandberg does evoke some feelings of unease from the anticipation of what may follow but Lights Out largely trades on jump scares. This is not an exercise in psychological horror. Don’t expect gushing blood or gore, either. Lights Out is polished, well-edited PG-13 scares.
Lights Out is polished, well-edited PG-13 scares.
A Little Too Much Backstory
Sandberg’s tight pacing in Lights Out is a bit of a double-edged sword for the film. While it heightens the suspense and adds a sense of urgency to what’s unfolding, it simultaneously takes away from the human drama of the story. Maria Bello’s Sophie particularly suffers from the film’s rapid pacing with her character arc left largely unexplored. The fault doesn’t lie with Bello, who is an excellent actress and delivers a solid performance in her limited role. Her character is just sidelined for too much of the film As a result, the climax in Lights Out, which hinges heavily on her character arc, feels largely underwhelming.
Lights Out is also hurt a little by insisting on providing a little too much backstory.
Lights Out is also hurt a little by insisting on providing a little too much backstory. The American remake of The Ring focused on Naomi Watts’ investigation of the haunted VHS tape. It certainly included some backstory, but much of the tape’s origins remained a mystery. Additionally, the audience still had to piece together information and draw inferences from the story. Eric Heisserer’s screenplay for Lights Out tells the audience too much, relying on a lot of expository dialogue. This may in part reflect the inherent limitations of stretching a three-minute short film out into a feature-length production.
A Fun But Imperfect Film
By the end of Light Outs, the premise feels a bit worn out and the climax sadly underwhelms. In spite of the good will the film builds for much of its runtime, it can’t help but feel like a lot of potential was left on the table. Still Lights Out entertains for its 80 to 90 minutes, even if fees a little inconsequential. Sandberg has since directed the very good Annabelle: Creation, illustrating the potential he has as an excellent genre filmmaker.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B