*/**** Image A- Sound A Extras D+
starring Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello
screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the short film by David F. Sandberg
directed by David F. Sandberg
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. This year's Brian Helgeland Award, named in honour of the man who wrote the Oscar- and Golden Raspberry-winning L.A. Confidential and The Postman, respectively, in the same year, goes to Eric Heisserer, who has somehow written one of the year's best movies about motherhood, Arrival, and one of its worst, Lights Out. Lights Out is not a good movie about anything, really (save perhaps the value of crank flashlights); as with the Heisserer-penned remakes of The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Lights Out screenplay is joylessly aspirational in the way of a personal assistant doing menial chores to accumulate credit--the thankless task in this case adapting David F. Sandberg's simple but effective micro-short of the same name. That director Sandberg opted not to write it himself implies the short was intended as a calling-card rather than a proof-of-concept, and his direction of the feature hardly evolves its meat-and-potatoes style. He created a monster and now he's riding its coattails; what Lights Out desperately needs is someone with a vision for the film, not just a career.
If the prologue sort of works, it's because it's a modified recreation of the short. A woman (Lotta Losten, the original Lights Out's lead) closing up shop at a textiles factory turns off the lights and sees a figure stand-swaying in the darkness. She turns the lights back on, and it disappears. Click. There it is again, closer this time. (Shades of Martin Scorsese's nerve-wracking "Amazing Stories" episode "Mirror, Mirror".) She keeps doing this until she's well and truly spooked, then runs to caution her boss (Billy Burke, in this movie's opinion a Janet Leigh-sized star), who's busy Skyping with his young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) about the boy's troubled mother and barely pays her any mind. And then he's killed. Lights out. What's great about this sequence is the mannequins, how the switch to darkness suggests that one of them is alive and pulling an old Looney Toons number on the person operating the lights. Alas, when they resurface later in a crap-filled basement, it's obvious they were only there--and are only back--to be Creepy Production Design 101. Lights Out is oddly uninterested in red herrings. It's not even all that interested in the dark as a powerful imaginative force. What you see is what you get. Lights out.
Jump forward to Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) shooing her talking vibrator, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), out the door now that she's spent. He's bummed--eight months together, apparently, and he still doesn't get to leave so much as a sock behind. (He tries; she throws it out the window.) This reversal of gender stereotypes turns out to be pretty reductive where Rebecca's concerned: she is this way because her father walked out on her family, leaving her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) to remarry Burke's character. That backstory isn't merely inelegant (it results in two absent fathers being spoken of interchangeably throughout and mantels of framed family photos that have us doing arithmetic), it's downright cynical when one considers it was contrived solely to give Rebecca abandonment issues, and the character's hard shell doesn't necessarily do the naturally-impassive Palmer any favours. Bret, on the other hand, might be the most ingenious thing about Lights Out. Because no real precedent or archetype exists for him, and because a totally obscure actor has been (shrewdly?) cast in the role, I was shocked not only when he had a second scene, but also when he continued to not die over the course of the film. If there's authentic suspense in Lights Out, it revolves around Bret's fate and the nature of his motivation as he tries to do right by Rebecca, since there is no shorthand persona or brand to mentally consult.
But Lights Out isn't about their relationship, it's about mothers, biological and surrogate. Rebecca is called to the school when her little half-brother Martin falls asleep in class. He's been up all night spooked by his mom's scary imaginary friend Diana and her habit of materializing in the dark. Sophie was cracking up before she became a widow, but Burke's death appears to have driven her over the edge; she makes poor Martin watch Auntie Mame with her! And she tries to formally introduce him to Diana, hoping they'll get along. That's a bit like arranging a playdate for Danny Pintauro and Cujo. To keep Martin safe, Rebecca eventually occupies her former home, where she finds reams of paperwork that conveniently lays out her mother's history with Diana (what, no microfiche?), who was real once--the two became close friends when both were hospitalized as kids: Diana for a debilitating allergy to light, Sophie for clinical depression. (A hilarious childhood photo of the pair shows Sophie posing next to a silhouette.) Then Diana died, and her spirit latched on to Sophie's depression, making her existence precariously dependent on Sophie's mental health.
The horror genre is an ideal vehicle for tackling the subject of depression, but there simply aren't enough layers of allegory, to start with, to make the ending of Lights Out seem anything but grotesquely misguided. In other words, if only Diana were the condition, not the symptom. Heavy spoilers in 3...2...1: At the climax, Sophie puts a gun to her own head. "No! Mom, what are you doing?" Rebecca asks. "Saving your lives," Sophie says, and pulls the trigger, killing herself--and Diana, until the sequel--instantly. That's not how you kill a monster, by sacrificing a sick, suicidal woman, and it's not how you resolve the arc of a character who thinks her children would be better off without her: by proving it. Martin's borderline beatific expression as he nestles into the crook of Rebecca's neck afterwards is, frankly, gross. Horror movies have the luxury of insensitivity, but to be this grim, this socially irresponsible, you need to either have so much panache that you appear to be critiquing that which you're promoting, or be so trashy that the most awful messages have a kind of aesthetic integrity. Sandberg's approach, which mimics the hackneyed moves of producer James Wan (think more door-slamming than a French farce), is too middle-of-the-road to cut it.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner brings Lights Out to Blu-ray in a 2.38:1, 1080p transfer. The digitally-generated image, more filmic in motion than that of the Wan-produced Annabelle, is razor-sharp for the most part, but shadow detail dips whenever the title comes true: While there's no crush, per se, there is definitely some manipulation of the blacks to create solid pools of darkness. In and of itself, contrast is impressively deep, and bold colours give the red-and-blue-saturated climax a nice, EC Comics flair. I detected little if any trace of video noise. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track delivers every last subwoofer-goosing with aplomb and has piercingly clear rear-channel effects that get under the skin almost irrespective of the film. My cat hated this mix--an endorsement. Extras are limited to a 13-minute batch of deleted scenes, 9 minutes of which constitute an alternate ending that resurrects Diana for one more showstopping battle. It's not difficult to see why they cut it: it would have undermined Sophie's already-problematic death, and it would've been just plain overkill, no pun intended. Too bad that, unlike the Blu-ray release of Mama, the disc doesn't include the superior short version of Lights Out. It does have startup trailers, though, for The Accountant, The Conjuring 2, Suicide Squad, and The Nice Guys, plus there are unadvertised DVD and downloadable copies of Lights Out inside the keepcase.