It feels like a lot of the challenge of making any kind of art in the modern age is that so much has been done already, that it is very hard to do something that feels fresh. Or at the very least isn't ripe with the stench of unoriginality. This is especially challenging in the horror genre. Fortunately for horror fans, first time feature director David F. Sandberg, with the help of modern horror master James Wan, has crafted a purely fun horror flick with Lights Out. Does it reinvent the wheel? Absolutely not. But, damn, this wheel does its job.
Lights Out tells the story of a family who is dealing with a very mysterious presence that is, and has been, terrorizing them for many years. Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is forced to pick up the pieces after her step-father dies of mysterious circumstances and her mother Sophie (Maria Bello), falls into a deep, and very troubling depression. Her brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is caught in the middle of the madness and begins to experience something strange, which echoes a dark part of his sister Rebecca's past. As the pieces of the puzzle start to come together and the lights go out, as most viewers of horror movies would hope, things get scary, but never not fun.
A couple of years ago, a short movie, also named Lights Out, started making the rounds at festivals and eventually online. It played very simply and very effectively on our natural human fear of the dark in a very brilliant way. That seemed to catch the attention of Warner Bros. and James Wan, so they decided to give Sandberg a shot at turning his terrific and terrifying short into a feature. That turned out to be a pretty good idea. Anyone who saw that short probably had a reasonable question in mind about how the simple concept of a figure appearing when the lights are turned off could be stretched to a full movie. The answer is by not over complicating it and just trying to do two very simple things; scare you and have fun while doing it.
Honestly, it is just astonishing a movie like this wasn't made sooner. At the rate that Hollywood churns out horror movies, you would think somebody would have made a good movie at some point prior to now that had to do purely with us being afraid of the dark. Lights Out has done a terrific job of occupying that space that was inexplicably empty. The movie shares more in common with the better entries in the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise than it does with any other paranormal horror movie. It has that that very unique, and seemingly difficult to achieve blend of jump scares and cheeky fun. Very few movies in this often average, if not flat out disappointing, genre have seem to be able to do it well, but Lights Out nails it.
Sandberg deserves every shred of credit for directing this movie, because it is very much in-keeping with the spirit of his short. But it would be impossible not to acknowledge that James Wan being involved must have elevated the quality of this movie. After the massively impressive sequel The Conjuring 2, Wan has cemented his place as the modern horror master, and there is no doubt that his DNA and sensibilities are present in Lights Out.
If there is one thing that good horror movies consistently teach us, it is that good performances go a very long way. There is a very small, core cast in Lights Out, and every single one of them does a damn good job of not delivering a typical, low-budget, B-lister performance that horror fans typically have to endure. The central cast members, perhaps most notably Maria Bello, really turn in straight up good performances, which is something we just don't see often enough in mainstream horror movies. Warner Bros. and Wan seem to recognize that quality is important, which sounds like an obvious thing to say, but it is shocking how many studios don't seem to understand that when it comes to horror. It is a genre that is largely not given the credit it deserves and is usually a way for a studio to make a quick, and easy buck. But as Wan has been trying to prove, if you make a better movie, more people will see it, and you will make more money. Everybody wins.
It needs to be stated that even though Wan was involved, this is definitely not his movie. Sandberg has his own sensibility, and that shines through. Whereas, Wan typically wants to challenge his viewers with heart attack worthy tension, Sandberg likes to have fun with the audience. It is more like a ride. Sure, it can be scary, but it is also a lot of fun and you should have just as many laughs as you should screams. They are very different sensibilities, but when done well, they are both great. And it has been quite a while since we have seen a mainstream movie like Lights Out.
In the last handful of years, we have had some pretty revelatory horror movies such as It Follows, The Babadook and yes, The Conjuring. That is not what Lights Out is. Warner Bros.' Lights Out is simple, effective and fun horror that takes a very simple concept, being scare of the dark, and plays with it in a way that is fresh, but also reminiscent of great things that have come before it. If you like horror movies at all, do yourself a favor and go see Lights Out in a crowded theater with some friends. You'll have a good time, and that is the whole point of going to a movie, isn't it? Lights Out is in theaters on July 22.