Review: David Sandberg's 'Lights Out' Turns On Solid Summer Scares
by Adam Frazier
July 22, 2016
Throughout my teens and early twenties, I was visited by the Night Hag. I would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, and there would be something in the room with me: a woman in a blue dress. With wiry black hair and pallid flesh, the woman crawled around in circles at the foot of my bed, scratching at the floor with long, claw-like fingernails. Upon making eye contact with her, I would feel an immense pressure on my chest, unable to move my extremities as she spider-walked closer to my bedside. I would clench my jaw and squeeze my eyes shut as she climbed onto the bed. I could feel her gnarled hands pushing down on the mattress to pull herself up — her fetid breath on my neck. And then nothing. She was gone.
The Night Hag, as I later found out, is a phenomenon associated with sleep paralysis, a condition in which a person temporarily experiences an inability to move, accompanied by terrifying hallucinations. I haven't seen the Night Hag in years, but I'm reminded of her constantly. Films like Ringu, Ju-On: The Grudge, A Tale of Two Sisters, and Mama feature raven-haired women crawling around in the shadows, waiting to devour us (not to mention the documentary The Nightmare about sleep paralysis). And with Lights Out, filmmaker David F. Sandberg's major directorial debut, a new wretch is added to those ranks.
Based on Sandberg's 2013 short film, Lights Out is the story of a young woman struggling to protect her little brother from a malevolent entity connected to their mother's troubled past. Due to an increasingly difficult and volatile relationship with her mother, Rebecca (played by Teresa Palmer) has been on her own for quite some time. When her 10-year-old half-brother, Martin (played by Gabriel Bateman), begins to suffer sleepless nights as a result of their mother's deteriorating condition, Rebecca returns from self-imposed exile to help. Their mom, Sophie (played by Maria Bello), is a former psychiatric patient who is slowly unraveling after the recent loss of her husband (played by Billy Burke). She's become a recluse, retreating to the darkest corners of the house to speak with an old friend she calls Diana.
Like the Night Hag, Diana exists only in darkness; an inky silhouette with piercing eyes and a herky-jerky stride that disappears with the flip of a light switch. Turn the lights off, however, and Diana will be there — one step closer. It's an interesting concept, reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Babadook, or It Follows, where you have a supernatural entity that abides by its own sinister (and very creepy) logic. Diana is no longer content to live alone in darkness. She's trying to drag the family into a place where she has total control: the basement.
Martin and Rebecca wield every kind of light imaginable to keep her at bay — wind-up flashlights, flickering lamps and candles, glowing smartphone screens, ultraviolet light — in hopes of combating Diana and freeing their mother. Sophie, meanwhile, is inflicting this terrible thing on her family, even though she loves them dearly. She's battling her inner demons as her children fight the physical manifestation of them. It's an interesting if entirely obvious metaphor that works because the performances are so strong.
So often in horror it's the characters we're supposed to care about who get the short shrift. Filmmakers are too caught up in the trappings of the story — jump scares, brutal deaths, gory effects — to realize we need an emotional connection. Here, Palmer, Bateman, Bello, and Alexander DiPersia, who plays Rebecca's boyfriend, all turn in great performances that make stretching Sandberg's short into a feature worthwhile. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer creates characters who aren't just victims. They're well-drawn individuals audiences can relate to, empathize with, and root for throughout. Stunt performer/actress Alicia Vela-Bailey's contribution as the super-fucking-scary Diana must also be praised. As far as Stringy-Haired Ghost Girls go, she's every bit as memorable as Sadako/Samara, and every bit as terrifying as the woman in the blue dress from my own experiences.
Producer James Wan (known for his own horror films including Insidious and The Conjuring) gives Sandberg all the tools necessary to make Lights Out an unnerving experience that delivers scares without scrimping on story. Wan's Furious 7 cinematographer Marc Spicer, his Insidious production designer Jennifer Spence, The Conjuring's editor (Kirk Morri) and costume designer (Kristin M. Burke) all lend their talents to make Lights Out a surprisingly solid summer horror flick.
It doesn't sustain the level of dread that films like The Witch or The Conjuring 2 masterfully wield, nor is it in the same league as recent standouts like the stylish It Follows or the innovative Hush, but Lights Out is nothing if not effective, with a simple premise that is ably executed. And at a breezy 81 minutes, it's a tidy little thriller that gets the job done without dragging things out (no pun intended).
While watching Sandberg's film, I wondered if he had ever experienced sleep paralysis or encountered the Night Hag himself. Seeing Diana crouched in a doorway, scratching the floor with her razor-sharp talons, her piercing eyes finding mine in the dark, I sensed my body tensing up. I could feel her breath on my neck. And then nothing. The houselights in the theater were raised and she was gone.
Adam's Rating: 3.5 out of 5
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