“It simply doesn’t create the kind of suspense and atmosphere it needs to succeed”

by Steve Pulaski

David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out is adapted from Sandberg’s three-minute short film of the same name from 2013, making its feature-length adaptation an interesting point of comparison with what happens when a film is adapted from a short film into one needed to justify a theatrical release. At eighty-one minutes (seventy-seven sans credits), it’s fair to assume screenwriter Eric Heisserer (writer of Final Destination 5, in addition to writing and directing Hours, Paul Walker’s final film), had a difficult time trying to extend the minimalist principles of Sandberg’s short film into a more realized premise that could fill a healthy runtime (or something Conjuring director James Wan could put his name on).

As a result, the suspense and craft present in Sandberg’s short film is more-or-less sidelined for family drama and emotional relevance in the feature film. Normally, I wouldn’t be so quick to critique or dismiss that, being a fan of human interest in my films. However, in many respects, Lights Out feels like a drama with some horror undertones more-so than a horror film with dramatic undertones. Whenever it focuses on the family issues of the characters, everything else present in the story slows down to give those elements undivided attention; when Lights Out becomes more of a horror film, it sort of throws many familiar concepts and scares into the mix and hopes we don’t notice.

Lights Out
Directed by
David F. Sandberg
Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello
Release Date
22 July 2016
Steve’s Grade: C

The film largely revolves around Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a woman in her mid-twenties with her sorta-boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia). Rebecca’s father died when she was little, being killed by some unknown, ghostly force when he was at work, leaving her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) a complete and total wreck, dependent upon antidepressants in order to function. Rebecca left her mother when she became too overbearing and completely out of it, going as far as to bond with a strange spirit named Diana that lived inside their home but could only operate with the lights off.

Now, with her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) doing poorly in school from his lack of sleep due to their mother’s strange nature, Rebecca goes through the process of trying to protect Martin from Diana by taking him to live with her. When Child Protective Services gets wind, however, despite the danger, matters complicate and soon Rebecca needs to find a way to rescue Martin or make an attempt to better her mother’s state.

The real tragedy with Lights Out is that it simply doesn’t create the kind of suspense and atmosphere it needs to succeed. Jolts are limited to conventional jump scares, which are often indicating through momentary bouts of unsettling silence. This kind of tactic is so drearily overused that it seems almost cheap to put such thought and emotional weight behind a premise just infest it with the same lame scares. And then when the film arrives to the conclusion most horror fans would’ve found inevitable from the get-go, it only feels more like a cop-out.

Palmer and Bello are actually pretty wonderful here, particularly Bello, who gets the thankless role of a character that succumbs to nervous breakdowns and rampant mood-swings throughout most of the picture. Bello has always been a convincing actress in the strangest, most unconvincing roles, and Palmer is still trying to find her footing in terms of what roles define her the most and accentuate their talents.

In a year that has already given us the mannered, if imperfect, Witch and the thoroughly pleasing and entertaining Conjuring 2, Lights Out feels like an after-thought cobbled together from scenes that didn’t make the final cut of other Wan films. While it may not be an immensely captivating horror film, it does respect its actresses enough to let them take center-stage, substituting for a lack of scares and ominous atmosphere, sort of.