Thursday, August 4, 2016

"Lights Out" Review: Restraint Is The Greatest Strength Of This Clever Horror Offering


Almost nobody expects to get invested in horror movie characters. They are usually painfully one dimensional and more often than not written in a way where you actually want them to get killed. Few films in the genre treat their antagonist as a real villain and instead make them more into a tool to dispose of generally unlikeable characters. The new horror flick Lights Out is crafted from a different mold, where it places a stable of mostly likeable characters in the path of a rather unsettling figure whose purpose is both sinister and kind of tragic which makes it one of the more intriguing horror entries in a long time. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  1 hr 21 min
Studio: RatPac-Dune Entertaiment
Release Date: July 22, 2016

Biases:  
Loves: Scary movies with likeable characters
Likes: Gimmicks that are used creatively and sparingly
Neutral: Scary movies that really aren't that scary
Hates: The number of sub-par sequels this film's success will generate
Why don't more horror movies have likeable characters?: Because they usually are more focused on the monster.

In a surprising twist for the genre, we actually don't want these people to get killed.

Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) had a difficult childhood. Her father ran away and her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) was mentally unstable, but it was a mysterious figure called Diana who constantly tormented her that finally drove her away forever. Abandoned, Sophie looked to build a new family with her new husband Paul (Billy Burke) and their son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) which seemed to be working out until that same mysterious figure reappears and starts to terrorize them all once again. Torn between her love for her half-brother Martin and her hatred towards her mother, Rebecca re-enters the picture to help save them all from the same exact same entity that tore her own family apart years before.

Lights Out is an unusual entry into the horror genre. Unusual not because it is a good film (although that certainly helps it stand apart from others in the genre) but more because of how it flips common horror movie conventions such as stupid characters and cheap scares on their head. Take for instance how we not only see Diana immediately but we also understand who she is and why she is there from the get go. Generally the mystery surrounding the creature that is killing everyone is divulged slowly over time giving us pieces of the puzzle to keep us interested since most of the time the characters that are dying left and right are unable to do it themselves. But here we learn of Diana's relationship with Sophie right off the bat and just about everyone knows there is a supernatural force trying to kill them which is refreshingly bizarre in the best way possible.

Diana turns the creep factor up but isn't that big on scares.

What this does is allow the film to breath during its middle section which is usually devoted to just a bunch of random people dying for a quick horror fix but almost always leads to a shrug of the shoulders more so than a legitimately earned scare. In place of those pointless deaths we actually learn who each of these people are and in a big twist they feel like real people who are trying to find a way out of this horrible situation they find themselves in. It is rather refreshing to not want any of your main characters to die horrible deaths and instead want to see them live. No more is this evident than with Rebecca's boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) who unlike most worthless horror movie boyfriends lends a great deal to the film and is someone we surprisingly find ourselves rooting for whenever his life is at stake.

Another area the film scores big is how it handles its central gimmick which unless you haven't seen one single ad for the film revolves around how Diana reacts to the light. Often times the importance of a horror film gimmick takes over the story and character details. Examples of this are films such as the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels (not the original which was perfect), the Child's Play sequels (once again, not the original) and more recently with stuff like Paranormal Activity and Saw. All of those films had a central gimmick of some kind that was the primary focal point which resulted in a experiences not unlike visiting a haunted house where a scare waits around every corner and despite feeling exhilarated by the end feels like an empty experience as well.

This is the face of someone who was just told that the monster stalking them is friends with their mom.

Despite showing us Diana almost all the time (which is generally a big no no) first time feature film director David F. Sandberg keeps us engaged by using both her and the gimmick sparingly. By allowing us to see her so early and sprinkling her throughout the first two acts it makes us question when she might appear again or worse yet, whether she even leaves at all. You see, Diana is not hurt by light per say she simply cannot be seen or interact with anything while in the light. So for all we know she is always present during the day and whenever an area shrouded in darkness is around such as a closet or any room with no light reaching it we know she could very well be lurking there waiting to strike.

Of course this is all just build up for the films finale which does not disappoint. With such a short run time (coming in just around the 80 minute mark) the first half of the film feels a little light on scares and is used (well, mind you) to establish the characters and the stakes at had which in the moment might feel a little underwhelming when you take into account how most other horror films shoot their load every chance they get. Once again, the restraint shown in regards to the gimmick surrounding Diana is incredible as there were plenty of opportunities to throw it in our face. Surprisingly there are few secondary characters so there isn't a lot of room to just kill off random people, but that patience pays off in a big way. Suffice it to say that anyone who may feel over the course of the film that the lights on/off gimmick will get short changed don't worry, the writers clearly did their homework and deliver a number of interesting twists and turns in those final moments that will have most audiences on edge the entire time.

The film consistency introduces new inventive twists to the 'lights out' gimmick.

However, one area that the film does slightly underwhelm in is that fact that it really isn't all that scary. It's hard to determine what sort of effect the filmmakers were going for here but I would have to say they weren't actively trying to make people jump out of their seats. This is deduced more in how we generally see just about everything which if you are a horror fan know that is the one thing responsible for sucking all tension out of a potentially scary flick. So if their intent was to provide a more creepy atmosphere where the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as opposed to having something jump out of the darkness and catch you off guard, their mission was successful. But there is no denying that if you are going into Lights Out expecting to get the s**t scared out of you then you might come away entertained but ultimately disappointed.

Is Lights Out the perfect horror flick? Does it set a new standard? Will it make you scared of the dark? Surprisingly the answer to all those questions is no. Despite how much fun and well written the film is it is difficult to love simply because it doesn't take the genre anywhere we haven't already been before. Its core gimmick, as clever as it is, is a hybrid of many other horror greats such as Nightmare on Elm Street and Candyman just to site a couple of examples. Those comparisons are not meant as a criticism more than they are to point out the many influences its creator was likely inspired by his either conscious or subconscious decisions. If you like horror films and want to see a standout example of the genre done right then Lights Out should please most fans even if they don't wet their pants while watching it.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

David F. Sandberg has stormed on to the scene with a highly entertaining film that simultaneously re-purposes many hallmarks of the horror genre while also twisting them ever so slightly to create a refreshingly smart example of a genre populated by far too many copycats. It won't scare you as often as you would like but that doesn't mean you won't be looking over your shoulder on your way out the theater either.

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