Old tricks and fresh wits make “Lights Out” an efficient fright fest

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For a fear as ubiquitous as the dark, it seems to be relegated to horror’s back burner as demonic possession dominates most of the genre’s recent efforts. Two trailers slated prior to the screening of Lights Out – one a sequel, another an Inception/Exorcist hybrid – featured kiddies tossing their loved ones around flickering rooms using whatever hellish forces at their disposal. June’s The Conjuring 2 had another innocent croaking in the tone of a raspy old English entity. Lights Out bucks the trend with fleeting efficiency, knowing how to scare and when to scare in a slim, satisfying package.

By now the movie’s trailer has made the rounds, and what an effective trailer it is. The simple act of a woman flipping a light switch off to reveal the silhouette of a hunched and scraggly human form, only to disappear immediately when the switch is flicked back on. Director David F. Sandberg (making his feature-length debut) knows you have already seen this, and it’s the first, very effective scare; the same one he uses in his two-minute short film also called Lights Out. The chills set in, and the first extended sequence in a textiles warehouse proves that Sandberg, even with a modest horror budget, can execute this same scare from a variety of perspectives. Viewer’s eyes will be darting around to each darkened corner trying to guess where this clawed creature will appear next.

Asked to navigate the dark is a surprisingly strong foursome whose wits are miles ahead of the usual dunderheaded teens or twenty-somethings lined up for abject slaughter. Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is an artist who prizes her independence as evidenced by her refusal to let her wannabe boyfriend, the hunky Bret (Alexander Dipersia), stay the night. She also has a strained relationship with her mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). Her father supposedly left the two of them when she was a child, which may explain why she dresses mostly in black and her apartment walls are adorned with her twisted drawings and at least one Avenged Sevenfold poster. Left to fend for himself is Rebecca’s young half-brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who keeps encountering his mom talking to herself, or perhaps something else, after his dad is left in bloody tatters in that excellent opening sequence.

At 81 minutes, Lights Out covers a lot of ground in not a lot of time, but what sounds like a flaw works to its advantage. There is no dawdling on the part of Rebecca, who as soon as she realizes that Sophie is off her anti-depressants and that gaunt figure is no figment of her imagination, springs into action. Evidence of her mother’s past is quickly unearthed as appearances of the silhouette become more and more frequent, and Rebecca’s turn from darkly clad cynic to full-on believer happens not after a series of eerie moments, but one terrifying encounter involving the intermittent flashing of a neon sign outside her apartment window. Fresh scratches in her hardwood floor that read “Diana” confirm that something is very, very amiss.

The torpor trap tends to derail horror movies with a hollow plot and/or subpar performances. When the scares aren’t a-scarin’, narrative explication is like pulling teeth. Bello’s performance alone manages to clear this oft-tripped over hurdle. She is an absolute wreck throughout the movie and you would be convinced she went days without sleep to achieve the twitchy paranoia of a borderline insomniac. Her home, a large Tudor revival, has all the curtains drawn and the rooms empty expect for stark wooden furnishings. It feels barren, much like presence behind her sinking eye sockets. As the layers of backstory peel away, Sophie’s hell becomes all the more real for Rebecca and Martin.

There comes a point in Lights Out where you expect it to buckle under the pressure of having to recycle the same scare in as many new ways as possible. It would be a lie to say it succeeds in doing so, but the same goes for any movie reliant on jump scares as its main source of entertainment. There comes a point of desensitization. You brace yourself so much that the payoff becomes less and less. The final act doesn’t necessarily succeed in providing the same rush as that first scene, but the resourcefulness of the characters, Rebecca and Bret in particular, is refreshing. There is entertainment to be found in someone using their wits in ways you wouldn’t expect, and Sandberg finds light in unexpected places.


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