Let me start by saying that it feels good to support the theatrical release on a horror film that is neither a remake nor a sequel. I'm basking in the joy of something new.
Now that that is out of the way, let's talk about LIGHTS OUT.
Based on a short film of the same title, LIGHTS OUT visits twenty-something Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) as she tries to help her little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) face strange goings-on in the creepy house he lives in with their mentally ill mother Sophie (Maria Bello). Sophie has a history of extreme depression but when Martin hears her talking to someone else in the mostly empty house and hearing and seeing odd things, he begins to lose sleep. Enter Rebecca who bailed out on Sophie as soon as she could after her father disappeared. Sophie began her current regression when Martin's dad succumbs to a horrible fate (in a brilliant, classic opening scene).
We soon learn that the eerie being who disappears when the lights are on is Diana. Rebecca had always thought Diana was a symptom of Sophie's illness but it turns out Diana is something more and will do everything she can to keep Sophie for herself (including convincing Sophie not to taker her medication).
Director David F. Sandberg, writer Eric Heisserer and Bello are to be commended for their handling of mental illness. Sophie's was never a joke and the tragedies are never blamed on Sophie the person, but rather are linked to the illness. It's a fine line and one these filmmakers didn't shy away from but didn't exploit, either.
There is one moment when Rebecca is confronting Sophie regarding the truth about Diana when Rebecca is trying to tell Sophie that Diana is dead. Sophie's response is that Diana can't be dead because ghosts aren't real.
Think about that for just a moment.
Here we have the "sane" and "reasonable" character telling the "insane" and "crazy" character that someone who died 30 years ago is somehow still in the house but the "crazy" person responds with the perfectly cogent argument that it can't be so because GHOSTS AREN'T REAL.
It is a brilliantly acted and scripted scene that deserves a closer look.
Sandberg and his crew put the brunt of the terror on the cast, particularly Alicia Vela-Bailey who plays Diana. For the most part, Diana is real. Sound design, lighting and editing combined with Vela-Bailey's physicality bring the spectral antagonist to life with only a few hints of CGI enhancement. The effect comes across as much more old-school because of this. Never giving us a full view of Diana also helps maintain the mystery.
I don't think LIGHTS OUT will ever be considered a great film in the pantheon of horror. What is has done, however, is added to the legacy of James Wan as a producer. beyond his directorial body of work, Wan is picking projects to work on and getting them into theaters with the deft touch of successful horror producers before him. Producers don't get the name credit in the genre like they should. It's all about writers and directors. Some of the genres best directors, however, have helped other filmmakers get work done by serving as producers. Wes Craven is a good example, although many of the films he "presented" weren't that great. Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi are other modern directors who will produce films for other directors. Wan is not only in that class, but quickly moving to the top of it.
The bad news is that a sequel has already been announced. I don't know how or why, based on the ending of LIGHTS OUT, but a csh cow will be milked until it is dry.
THREAT LEVEL: ORANGE. I should make it red, just to get you out to the theaters before it's gone, but orange will do. LIGHTS OUT is worth seeing for fans of the genre but might not have much mainstream crossover appeal. The film is rated PG-13, so while is intense, it is not as brutally intense as Wan's own THE CONJURING films.