27 July 2016

A Babadook-Shaped Shadow of Mental Illness: Lights Out

Directed by David Sandberg
Written by Eric Heisserer
Full cast and crew at IMDb

Darkness is a primal human fear that horror movies have long exploited; the structure of so many recent genre entries is: daytime exposition, nighttime scare, repeat ad infinitum. This movie strips that formula down. The malevolent force here is allergic to illumination, a Babadook-shaped shadow that disappears when you flick a switch or point a flashlight—that is, the villain is concentrated darkness itself. 

David Sandberg directs in the signature purist style of James Wan (who’s a producer here): Sandberg builds tension slowly, with camera movement and light. (The best scenes are a comic one, in which a potential victim scrambles to find more light, from his cell phone to a car-key fob, and a long sequence shot in maximally creepy blacklight.) But he shows that it’s not as easy as Wan makes it look—Sandberg is capable but not masterful, and Lights Out is scary but never terrifying.

The conceit, stretched out to 81 minutes by Eric Heisserer, is a bit too thin to support the backstory heaped upon its shoulders, but it’s actually the strength of the underlying ideas that makes this movie as effective as its classical construction. What anchors the story is the clear metaphor of the monster as a manifestation of mom’s mental illness, a harmful, lurking thing that gets rids of daddies and threatens children. It’s a moving (if irresponsible) look at how children cope with, and suffer under, sick parents. Alternatively, it’s a troubling look at how abusive people can dominate a relationship—or a family. Grade: B

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