On overselling a premise, miraculous investigatory luck, and how not to introduce your villain
Lights Out Warner Bros.
Director: David F. Sandberg
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short film by David F. Sandberg
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Alicia Vela-Bailey and Billy Burke
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 21 minutes / 2.35:1
July 22, 2016
(out of four)
Any day now, someone is going to turn Lights Out into an actual movie. Sure, one purportedly exists already, but this "feature" version is nothing more than a glorified proof of concept ... which is a bit odd considering it was already based on a proof of concept, the three-minute short from 2013 that got this 81-minute opus made in the first place. Perhaps the third time would be the charm. In any event, this 2016 adaptation doesn't amount to much more than a longer-winded, and yet equally spare, stab at the same idea. This version more concretely establishes the possibilities of the premise as an instrument of horror (a ghostly menace who only appears in darkness) without really taking advantage of it, and maps out characters and a storyline without ever feeling obligated to go beyond the broadest of strokes.
The five-minute opening scene is designed explicitly (and exclusively) to make the same point that took the original short film a matter of seconds to get across. Someone turns off a light and a contorted personage appears in silhouette across the room. The light turns back on and the silhouette disappears. The concept is henceforth introduced. Except director David F. Sandberg (who also made the original short) can't leave well enough alone. He listlessly oversells his most basic, easily observable detail - that this figure appears only in the dark - with not one but two inertly staged prologue scenes in which a character repeatedly turns on and off a light. Light off, she appears; light on, she's gone. Light off, light on. She's there, she's gone. See Spot Run. It's the visual equivalent of over-exposition. Voiceover narration explaining the whole premise would have been more subtle.
It's here that Sandberg's amateur directorial skills shine through unambiguously. The repetition of the lightswitch device is not just dull but painfully unnecessary. The silhouette is immaculately clear, framed perfectly in the light behind or in front of it; the characters have no trouble identifying what they're seeing as a human (or human-like) figure, so the constant on/off back-and-forth has little dramatic purpose. Sandberg doesn't use his light sources or his shadows evocatively, or to obscure the form of that demonic figure, or anything else that might create some sort of ambiguity or perceptual tension between the characters and this thing they're seeing in front of them.
As the film expands beyond its starting point to involve a family crisis and a tragic backstory for "Diana" (the light-averse presence in question), Sandberg's methods don't get any less stagy. (Even his blocking is often clumsy and physically awkward.) Although his efforts pale in comparison to Eric Heisserer, whose screenplay somehow manages to feel thinner than the original short, which was a total of 157 seconds in length. For the amount of material Heisserer gets into this thing, I'm honestly amazed Lights Out even got to its 81-minute runtime. This is like an outline of a screenplay. These are the bad ideas you start with and then expunge as you come up with better ones.
Here are the basics: Mom (Maria Bello) has a seemingly imaginary friend, Diana, who is in fact a supernatural figure who can only appear in darkness. Mom has two children - rebellious twentysomething Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her precocious, sleep-deprived 10-year-old brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Rebecca is increasingly wary of their mother's behavior and wants to get Martin out of the house, but Mom will have none of it. The entire story is essentially a custody battle playing out in the midst of a lurking supernatural presence that doesn't want Mom or Martin to leave.
And here is Heisserer's lazy, garbage excuse for storytelling: When the time comes for Rebecca to take matters into her own hands and solve the mystery of Diana, she walks right into her mom's office, immediately sets her eyes on a random childhood photograph on the wall, which she immediately discovers is a photo of a girl named Diana (!). Then, she immediately - I mean, without any effort at all - finds a box, just sitting there, full of information all about Diana's childhood and personal history. There's not even any attempt by Heisserer to work for it. This particular genre formula always has scenes like that one - these days, Google is usually involved - but I'm not sure I've ever seen one so shamelessly lazy about it. You could do the same scene as a comedy sketch and you wouldn't have to change a single moment.
As a character, Rebecca - our reluctant heroine - is presented at every turn as troubled, isolated, rebellious. "Dark" and "edgy" were probably the words that described her in the script. Seemingly concocted from the imagination of a Concerned Mother from the 1990s, she is constantly looked down upon by the film, and the characters in it, because she dresses in black (black eyeliner! black fingernails! black boots! black skirts!), adorns her walls with heavy metal posters (Avenged Sevenfold, le gasp!), and (don't say it...) smokes pot! Oh, and as the cherry on top, she also has a boyfriend with long hair (!) who's almost definitely the drummer in a terrible band. Basically, Rebecca is exactly as dark and edgy as half the girls I knew in eighth grade. And yet this movie frames her as the troublesome, not-to-be-trusted, ultra-rebellious daughter. She's so rebellious, in fact - so independent, so distant - that she has her very own apartment that's all the way ... within short walking distance of her mom's house. I give up.
The only personality the film hints at is Diana herself, whose gnarled appearance at least makes for a half-decent visual. Or it would, if there were anyone behind the camera really bringing her to life. Instead she stands there like a prop - never showing up in the light and yet all too eager to be seen once the lights go out - always waiting for her cue, like some costumed extra at a local haunted house. Sandberg refuses to give her any real mystery, over-selling most of her entrances and reducing her to just another creature that jumps out at us in the dark.