Monday, 29 August 2016

Lights Out

All supernatural horror films have a choice that they must make very early on, and it's a choice that can make or break the film. In horror, monsters can just be monsters. Ala Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring, they can be creepy things that go bump in the night and serve no other purpose besides scaring you senseless. The other option is to have your monsters act as more than just the supernatural, and allow these demons to serve a deeper meaning. The Babadook, for example, used its pop-up-book-esque monster to act as a metaphor for grief and deeply examined the damage that grief can do to a family, much like It Follows utilised a shape shifting and inescapable demon as subtext for STIs in youth society. These films have much more to say than your standard horror, and while sometimes the simple stuff can work best when untouched, it's difficult not to long for that extra meaning hidden behind the scares. Lights Out follows the path of The Babadook in that it is very obviously about mental illness, which is great. The problem is that it doesn't seem to know what to say about the issue, and when it finally arrives on a firm point to make, it's not really one you want to see on screen.

This is incredibly, incredibly frustrating, because before the film makes one pretty questionable point about mental illness, Lights Out is a fun, narratively focused and legitimately frightening little horror. After Rebecca's (Teresa Palmer) stepdad is mysteriously killed in his warehouse, her young brother Martin notices their mother Sophie (Maria Bello) showing signs of depression and acting generally rather weirdly. Sophie repeatedly retreats to her bedroom in the evenings, and talks to a strange figure that resides in the shadows. Martin, suffering insomnia triggered by Sophie's depression, pleads Rebecca for help, and the two soon realise that Sophie's mental illnesses are connected to a more spiritual cause than they suspected. It's your standard horror fare, but what makes Lights Out such a terrific scare machine is that it all feels entirely organic. The creature in this film can only be seen in the dark, and immediately disappears from view the moment a light is shone in its direction. Turning off the lights and plunging a house into darkness is a cheap way of claiming a good few jump scares, but it rarely feels earned. In Lights Out, however, every jump and every bolt feels worked into the film's mythology.

The film opens with an almost carbon copy of the identically titled short film released in 2013, also directed by David F. Sandberg. It's brilliantly effective, but it evokes worries early on that the film isn't going to be able to keep the same scare tactic fresh across a feature length run time. It's seriously impressive, then, that Sandberg perfectly achieves this. Similar sequences occur across the film, but the setting, pacing and light source are all different, giving each moment its own unique spin; a sequence in which the creature appears in Rebecca's bedroom amid the flashing red sign from the tattoo parlour she lives above is the best example of this, as well as a brilliantly inventive moment later on in the film that makes terrifying use of a generator light and a perfectly executed narrative mini-twist. Lights Out is effective in every kind of horror it targets - it absolutely nails jump scares, fake outs, drawn out moments of intensity and horrific body horror - and it's truly refreshing to find a film that is willing to branch out a bit more and attempt multiple varieties of horror. Not everything lands - the reveal of the creature's face feels unnecessary, and characters are thrown across a room a bit too frequently for my liking - but it's tough to fault a horror film that attempts so much and fails so little.

Lights Out also benefits from a flat out terrific cast that do a stellar job across the film. Palmer is superb as Rebecca, underpinning her likeable character with an interesting history that comes across in the way she speaks to her brother and her mum. The fact that her character is also treated to an effective journey across the film also helps; Rebecca begins the film as someone deeply scared of commitment, both to her brother and her boyfriend, but by the film's final act she is a seriously changed woman, and her transformation is handled subtly and delicately. Rebecca's boyfriend himself, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), is also enjoyable, and Eric Heisserer's script smartly avoids dropping this character into the typically annoying sex-obsessed and unmotivated boyfriend archetype. Bello also does a terrific job as Sophie, and, along with Palmer, she forms a deeply felt bond with her children, and the two play off each other really well. They feel truly like mother and daughter, and the events that took place before the film feel fleshed out through their performances. Gabriel Bateman also does a solid job as Martin. While he may struggle with some of the film's bigger moments, he works perfectly fine as a scared kid who has found himself well out of depth. A couple of solid performances in a horror film is pretty surprising, but a stellar performance across the board is almost unheard of.

Where Lights Out seriously falters, though, is in its attempts to go a bit deeper. The film's willingness to explain all of the creature's history and connections to the family feel unnaturally forced the moment Rebecca begins doing research of her own, but it's the script's complete failure to acknowledge the points it's discussing about mental illness that really pull the film away from greatness. Lights Out is very heavy handed with the whole depression thing - the word itself is already tossed around the film like a grenade as it is - and the film's conclusion takes this theme in completely the wrong direction. In fact, the point that Lights Out actually makes about mental illness is so sudden and so controversial that it's difficult to believe it was the film maker's genuine intention for this point to come across. It almost feels as if Heisserer's script simply picks and chooses when depression is the film's focus, and he just abandons it as a central theme when he needs to focus on his endgame. The finale sequence works fine on its own, and it makes sense within the narrative, but when coupled with all of the thematic content the film has already offered, we're left with something rather unpleasant, and not in the gleeful "so horrible it's great" way normally found in horror.

It's unfortunate that Lights Out ends on such a sour note, as the previous 75 minutes are an absolute blast. The film has likeable characters, great performances, an awesome soundtrack, effective cinematography and killer scares in abundance. As a small budgeted horror flick, it works wonderfully. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that it could stand up there with the likes of It Follows and The Witch as one of the truly exceptional horror films of late, if only because it tackles such a simple idea in such an exciting and inventive way. The minute that Lights Out puts its focus onto something deeper, though, all potential for the film to fall into classic status is lost, and the whole thing ultimately drifts into middle tier horror that sits high above the likes of Poltergeist and Annabelle, but just isn't intelligent enough to earn a place at the top. Deeper content in horror can work wonders, but only if it's done right. Lights Out takes a shot at something great, but woefully misfires in its conclusion. Still, you can't blame a film for trying. Can you?

To Summarise: Its tackling of some heavy themes may feel seriously misjudged, but Lights Out remains a fun, focused little horror film that benefits from a collection of excellent performances and a handful of brilliantly inventive scares.

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