Film Review: ‘Lights Out’ is a thoroughly satisfying fright flick

lights_outI’ll freely admit that I normally don’t care much for PG-13 horror outings. They just tend to be too watered down to be effective at all. Go figure though, Lights Out has that rating and still manages to not sacrifice anything in the way of scares. This is a short and to the point movie that sets up its terror premise and then slow burns its way through the next 90 minutes or so. Director David F. Sandberg (expanding on his own short film) has a sure hand behind the camera and never goes over the top in terms of making this too ridiculous of a feature. Between a parsing out of gore on occasion and a real belief in the story behind Lights Out, Sandberg sets things up for success early and manages to pull us through.

In no way am I suggesting that this is on the level of something like recent success stories It Follows or The Witch or You’re Next, and certainly nowhere near the level of The Cabin in the Woods, but again, with the diminished status of the PG-13 horror sub-genre, it does hold up. Genre fans are probably the only ones who will appreciate it, though the teens and tweens who don’t have to sneak in will probably be pleasantly surprising, provided that they’re not making out the whole time. Lights Out is rock solid and a horror effort with checking out.

There’s slightly more of a story here than you might have expected. We begin by listening to Paul (Billy Burke) detail the problems his wife is having while at work in a foreboding factory of sorts. His hints about what’s to come is interrupted by the appearance of an entity that moves in the shadows, hates the light, and will brutally murder you if you come into close contact with it. We then learn that Paul was the husband of Sophie (Maria Bello), a troubled woman who seems to have an invisible friend in Diana.

Of course, Diana is the entity, and it has some sort of a hold on Sophie, which her young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) notices. With Diana preying upon him, he turns to his older sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who has long been estranged from Sophie, partly due to her own interactions with Diana years ago. As Rebecca tries to protect Martin and free Sophie from Diana’s clutches, she learns more about the entity and why it’s so drawn to her mother. In some ways, this is standard horror material, but it’s handled with a no frills approach and a belief in the story that’s been told, which goes a very long way.

lights-outRare is the fright flick that features powerhouse acting jobs, and while that’s not the case here either, there’s a pair of performances that are certainly noteworthy. Not only is Maria Bello’s slightly manic performance dramatically compelling, Teresa Palmer’s turn is slightly smarter than your run of the mill horror heroine. Throw in the supporting turn of Alexander DiPersia as Bret, the pseudo boyfriend of Rebecca, we have characters that actually behave rather intelligently for a change. Gabriel Bateman is a decent enough child actor, but Bello and Palmer are the ones holding this together.

In addition to the aforementioned Billy Burke, we have Alicia Vela-Bailey playing Diana, along with supporting players like Andi Osho, Amiah Miller, Ava Cantrell, Emily Alyn Lind, and more. Again though, if you’re looking for performances to hold on to, it’s Bello and Palmer for sure. I’ve long been a fan of Bello’s, and while she’s not doing career best work, it’s a solid turn that showcases her talents.

Director David F. Sandberg, along with scribe Eric Heisserer, craft Lights Out with more care than you’d expect. There isn’t a particularly high body count, the main characters don’t behave like morons, and the simple premise of staying in the light is kept creative. Yes, Sandberg is reliant on jump scares, but he also avoids CGI in favor of practical effects, while he and Heisserer invest you enough in the story that you’re willing to forgive that.

There’s also a really surprisingly finite ending to things in Lights Out, avoiding the compulsion to leave things open to a sequel. There still could potentially be more of these, but it’s clearly designed as a one off, and I can appreciate that. It shouldn’t be a bold move, but in this day and age, it really is.

Basically, Lights Out manages to surprise by actually executing a PG-13 horror film that doesn’t seem completely toothless. Usually, fright flicks tend to come off like they’re missing something that might have been including in an R rated version, but that’s not the case here. More gore or nudity wouldn’t have made this one better, and that’s a roundabout way of paying the film a compliment. If you dig scary movies, this is one to potentially give a shot to. As horror goes, Lights Out is a film that works far more than you’d probably expect it to. Take a look and you’ll see exactly what I mean…

GRADE: (★★★)

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