Sometimes, they’re used to describe the same thing but as anyone that’s read a Warhammer rulebook can tell you, there’s a big difference between fear and terror. Fear requires a context, it’s a personal emotional experience to the individual, and for the purpose of a film, we always need to be told why someone is afraid like having a prior accident or traumatic experience. Terror is when fear becomes so simple and primal that it requires no explanation. We never need to be told why a character is terrified. Heights are terrifying because falling a very real and obvious outcome. Fire is terrifying because it's wild and unpredictable. Then there is arguably the mostly widely drawn upon source of terror: the dark, because nothing is scarier than sheer nothing itself. It’s something that director David F. Sandberg draws upon fantastically in the feature length version of his acclaimed 2013 short film.
Rebecca (Teresa Palmer – Warm Bodies) left home to escape her mentally unstable mother, Sophie (Maria Bello – Prisoners) but when a shadow-dwelling creature known as Diana threatens to hurt her younger brother Martin, she must find a way to save her family.
If you hate horror films that spend a long time teasing and building up, then Lights Out maybe the film for you because it certainly doesn’t hang about for a green light. In the opening minutes, it ploughs straight into the action, and a trailer featured sequence that originally looked far more prominent than merely the opening salvo. It immediately breaks you away from the supernatural haunting by numbers film you might have been expecting into the unknown, which is exactly what you want such a film to do: to be unpredictable. Although some parts of the story do play out as expected, its premise (Diana is only corporeal in the dark) allows things to quite literally turned on their head with the flick of a switch, allowing for plenty of good shock scares and sudden heavy suspense. What’s more Eric Heisserer’s screenplay nicely dodges a few of the more frustrating genre troupes. In particular, the token trip to see the random religious/University expert purely for an explainer scene is negated merely by having the opening kill step father (spoiler alert... for about 5 minutes), having already done all the research in the preceding months.... seriously, why can’t more horror films do this? It saves time and allows lead characters like Rebecca to discover things via their intelligence rather than being told everything. The explanation of Diana itself is also a decent attempt at blending both science fiction and supernatural elements.
The horror imagery and visuals are consistently good throughout the film with some terrific imagination over interjections of light into Diana’s attacks. A standout first half sequence sees Rebecca on the living room sofa with a red neon sign flashing on and off outside her window for blasts of eerie light. Or a later ill-advised attempt to put a cap in her undead ass though the bullets don’t affect her the flash from each gunshot causes a momentary disappearance. Things manage to stay quite varied throughout in how characters desperately keep the lights shining, which stops the film dragging. There’s plenty of good skills in the camerawork to as we smash into facial close-ups while knowing something is lurking behind. Even the now-clichéd Paranormal Activity style “drag away” moments find their mark because of their effective timing. Diana herself is also an effective nemesis. Her scraping nails make good teases when she’s out of sight and thankfully Sandberg has resisted the temptation to make her an over imposing Babadook like figure which keeps things a bit more grounded. In fact, the whole film carries the welcome feeling of being a more sinister take on a Doctor Who style story.
Although the film does pull off some good surprises, after the initial flurry there are a number of points where the story gets too predictable. Also the characters could do with being more engaging. We care for them when they’re in peril of course but Gabriel Bateman’s young Martin is rather dull. We get that he hasn’t been sleeping but least give some kind of a personality. The non-family wheel in the equation, Alexander DiPersia’s Bret is also doesn’t fair well. He feels like more of a plot device than a character, there to be the skeptic when Rebecca starts to believe etc. What’s more, he’s annoyingly too cool about the spiritual goings on for merely following Rebecca blindly and some decent conflict between the pair would have highly beneficial.
It’s no surprise that a sequel has already been confirmed with Sandberg again directing (he’s also been given Annabelle 2…. It might not suck after all!). That’s because Lights Out is a well-crafted and superbly executed terror fest that couldn’t give a damn about following its genre stereotypes. It’s sitting right alongside The Conjuring 2 for this year’s best supernatural horror films. If you’re a genre fan, it’s a must-see but still plenty to enjoy if you’re not as such a film is always a welcome break from the summer big budget blockbuster onslaught (Lights Out was made for just $5m). A bunch of kids on Nickelodeon once asked me if I was afraid of the dark.... Thank God they didn’t tell this story round their campfire.