Fear is a powerful force of nature that can easily overwhelm your senses no matter how irrational it may seem. The scariest things are often the ones we encounter everyday because we haven’t been given a reason to doubt them… yet. Lights Out takes advantage of that primordial fear of the unknown that lurks in the darkness while simultaneously personifying that fear into a being that embodies the figurative and physical aspects of darkness.
Reboot screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing) has continued to display a mastery of classic horror elements, often opting for tropes that once made the genre a nightmare-fueling, psyche-scarring experience. Heisserer continues his campaign to make horror great again by infusing the genre’s traditional values into contemporary films. In league with first time feature film director and creator of the short this film is inspired from, David F. Sandberg makes sure that Lights Out unabashedly embraces every horror trope it can, but to a much greater degree of success than you would have anticipated.
The strength behind the film’s effectiveness is in great part due to the careful construction of the story and its characters. Even though it has become a painful staple of many current horror films, a film can’t exist when it is only composed of tropes. There needs to be a unifying factor between predictable jump scares and terrible acting to keep the film from collapsing on itself. That means it needs to have some substance in the form of a coherently formed plot or well-defined characters, which has become a rarity in horror films. The Conjuring 2 had these elements, and more so it was able to break through its formulaic mold to become a fulfilling entry in horror film history. Continuing this year’s streak of satisfying scary movies, Lights Out uses a familiar premise as a way to build up the characters into fully realized, relatable people.
Too often do we find ourselves either mentally or physically reprimanding the characters for their poor decision-making skills in life or death situations. It is impossible to care for a character when you consider them an idiot and are just counting down the minutes until their inevitably brutal slaughter. Lights Out shatters that stereotype and creates characters who you can identify and empathize with. Since the characters all react intelligently, every ounce of humor is intentional rather than being a byproduct of shoddy development and frustration. Teresa Palmer gives one of her best performances in years as she adds depth to a character that is forced to face her greatest fear, which surprisingly ends up being the notion of commitment and not the darkness-lurking creature plaguing her family. Through her character, she is able to convey a sense of strength and vulnerability as she confronts her past demons like abandonment, estrangement and growing up a victim of mental illness. Her character is given a chance to shine with the help of great supporting actors like Maria Bello and Alexander DiPersia.
Horror is as much about the visual elements as it is the story’s narrative. By setting up the audience with the character’s turmoil and drama, the visual elements can be introduced to heighten the suspense to the point of terror. Director Sandberg holds fast to the film’s conceit, never letting it become just another gimmick, but instead cleverly building upon it. Things like UV light and gunfire flashes are only a few of the ways Sandberg enhances his mythos. He also masterfully manages the balance between darkness and light, creating a foreboding atmosphere without compromising the audience’s line of sight. Just because the emphasis is darkness, Sanders has fun with the light using the vibrancy of neon colors to silhouette his characters and adding beauty to a terrifying scene.
In the pursuit of the elusive horror film that is a complete package, many filmmakers get lost in the dark forest, losing the trail and ending up fading into obscurity. By backtracking and following in the footsteps of its many predecessors, Lights Out manages to illuminate the way and find its home in familiar territory. There is something fundamentally wrong with the horror genre when revisiting techniques from the past make for a refreshing change. The horror is currently in a fluctuating state of self-discovering, rediscovering its roots in order to save its presumably bleak future. Films like Lights Out and The Conjuring are either the heralds of a horror renaissance or the harbingers of its destruction. Let’s enjoy these solidly built pieces of nostalgia while we can.
Rating: ★★★★★★★ (7/10 stars)