When it comes to wide-release, studio-backed horror films, the occult is where it’s at. It could be haunted houses and ghost investigators, or maybe it’s possessions and exorcisms, but when it comes to a “general public” horror flick, you can generally expect it to land firmly within this sub-genre. But if we have to bide our time until monster movies, slasher flicks, and vampire stories become slightly more popular again, we can at least take solace in the fact that lots of these PG-13 occult thrillers are actually pretty good movies.
The simple but effective new horror flick Lights Out comes from a producer who knows more than his share about ghost-laden horror stories; James Wan is one of the key filmmakers behind horror flicks like Insidious and The Conjuring, so it’s safe to say that he knows how to squeeze a few jolts out of an audience in the mood for a modern spin on a classic horror trope: the thing that goes bump in the night. And while much of Lights Out is slightly conventional and frequently familiar, it still works quite well on its own merits.
The set-up is as simple as a good campfire story: a young boy struggles to deal with his mother as she battles with mental instability that traumatized her at a young age. But maybe the kid’s mother isn’t unstable at all. Maybe she actually does see a freaky apparition who only appears when the lights go out. In an effort to save his own sanity, young Martin (Gabriel Bateman) looks to his big sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) to intercede on his behalf … much to the chagrin of their seriously stressed-out mother Sophie (Maria Bello). Rebecca also has a loyal boyfriend on hand for moral support (and to deliver some plot exposition), and whether he’s integral to the plot or just a ghost victim waiting to happen I’ll leave for you to discover.
For such a lean flick (81 quick-moving minutes all told) and comfortably conventional ghost story, Lights Out does manage to mine a little dark territory in between its more simple (albeit highly effective) scare scenes: the fears a child has when their parent starts behaving weirdly; whether or not an estranged sibling is capable of stepping into a parent’s role; and, of course, how far a mother will go to protect her child from someone dangerous, even if that someone happens to be her.
None of the darker themes get in the way of the spooky fun. Lights Out features a handful of clever set pieces in which the seemingly demonic “Diana” glides between shadows and waits patiently for (you guessed it) the lights to go out. That’s how she gets her victims, and the filmmakers seem to enjoy finding new light sources for Diana to overcome. (A sequence involving a giant neon sign is particularly cool.). Adapted from the short film by director David F. Sandberg and adapted by horror-centric screenwriter Eric Heiserrer, Lights Out may be a quick, simple, and slightly familiar piece of PG-13-level horror, but it’s also a well-made and unexpectedly engaging thriller as well — with an ending that’s sure to generate at least a small amount of debate among horror fans.
3.5 out of 5 oddly nocturnal burritos
Image: New Line / WB