Does it matter that Freddy Krueger was a pedophilic middle-school janitor who died in a blazing fire when parents sought revenge? No. And unless you’re a horror-film obsessive, you probably don’t even know how he morphed into a pizza-faced Where’s Waldo with knife fingers — what matters is that he lives in people’s dreams and has some killer one-liners. David F. Sandberg’s feature debut, Lights Out, based on the internet-sensation short film of the same name, features a Freddy-caliber ghoul. But, boy, I wish they hadn’t spent so long explaining her origin story.
Mom’s off her meds. Maria Bello as a distraught, newly single mother chatting with a dark closet is subtle and smartly shot, shadows cast on an anguished face, while young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) keeps a stiff upper lip at her explanation that mommy’s friend “Diana” is there in the dark. The spooks in this film reach 100 mph in seconds, and just like in Sandberg’s original short, the initial premise is simple and effective: When the lights go out, a thin, angular, shadow-dwelling creature appears, her long fingernails sharp enough to carve her name into every wooden surface. Lights on? She’s gone. Needless to say, Martin’s not getting a lot of sleep with “Diana” in the dark.
Enter estranged half-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who keeps her tatted boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) at arm’s length, afraid to let people in. See, Rebecca’s also had her own run-in with Diana when she was Martin’s age and her father mysteriously disappeared, an event that echoes the terrifying recent murder of Martin’s own dad. So Rebecca kicks into savior mode, trying to get mom back on her meds to permanently evict Diana from the corners of their eyes.
That early simplicity — scary and artfully shot — turns Lights Out into a kind of opposite-day take on Jennifer Kent’s acclaimed The Babadook (2014). Here, instead of getting into the psyche of a mother whose immeasurable grief gives life to a gravelly-voiced, bat-like specter, the story returns to the safer POV of the children watching it all happen from the outside. Unfortunately, this makes room for both less nuanced ideas about mental illness and some unnecessary “archival” flashbacks that explain how and why Diana was brought to life, which for some reason Rebecca then has to explain completely a second time to Martin in-scene, even though the audience is already clued in. (Never let the audience get ahead of the story!) But when Sandberg isn’t spinning his wheels in the why, he’s capable of doling out a steady diet of scares.
With dim, sparse sunlight creeping around the edges of heavy drapes, splashing selectively on floral wallpaper, dark hardwood, and weighty old furniture, there’s a tinge of gothic horror to the giant shaded home. When Diana rips into the floor, knocks on the door, skitters up the stairs, or shreds a rug, the sound design keeps her separate, bouncing around from all sides — the reason you should see this in the theater has less to do with the story and more to do with sight and sound and one disturbing, wordless performance from stunt actress Alicia Vela-Baily.
There’s a pointed difference in tone between the no-frills, ingenuity-driven scares that make expert use of light (and lack thereof) to give a fright and some flashier scenes reminiscent of producer James Wan’s cheesier Saw, Annabelle, and Insidious movies. And despite Palmer’s harrowing performance, Bateman’s pleasantly restrained child acting and Bello’s serious dramatic efforts, it’s still a little disappointing that Swedish actress Lotta Losten (from the original short) only gets a small part and doesn’t have the chance to add humor or relieve some of the pretension. Either way, Lights Out needs to be seen in a darkened theater next to someone who won’t judge you for jumping out of your seat. Ignore Diana’s “story” and cower in fear of her knife nails.