Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Lights, Camera, Tension

Star Trek Beyond was not the only new movie this weekend that I got to check out. I also saw the new horror film Lights Out. It marks the feature film debut for David Sandberg, though he has made a number of shorts -- the first of which was the inspiration for this very movie (and which can be watched on YouTube).

Lights Out is a tight 80 minute movie with a simple premise. There's a monster terrorizing a young boy and the adult half-sister he turns to for help. The creature is powerless in direct light, but at night, when the lights go out, it's a terrifying specter with murderous intent.

If you watch the original short film, you might be hard-pressed to imagine how even 80 minutes could be wrung out of such a straightforward idea. But that's where this new version scores some points with me. Screen writer Eric Heisserer has crafted a character-driven story with a solid metaphor: mental illness can destroy a family. This full-length Lights Out unfolds in the context of a woman who escaped her disturbed mother, and who must now return to rescue her half-brother from the same situation. The story is worthwhile and interesting on its own, apart from the supernatural horror.

But then the set pieces work well too. The movie manages to explore all manner of situations in which lights suddenly come and go: basic switches, motion-activated sensors, flashing neon signs, hand-crank operated emergency flashlights, and many more. The monster occasionally displays an unfair ability to counter attempts to stop it with light, but the overall give and take of "now you see it, now you don't" never stops being intensely creepy. Nor does the movie need gore to evoke a visceral response; this is about classic, suspense driven chills.

The film also benefits from acting more solid than your run of the mill horror film. Most of the performers aren't easily recognized from other work, but Teresa Palmer plays a convincing psychologically damaged protagonist, Alexander DiPersia is believable as her determined boyfriend, and young Gabriel Bateman is exactly what you're looking for in a horror film from a child actor. Genre actor Billy Burke (who has appeared in everything from Twilight to the short-lived TV series Revolution) has fun in an extended prologue that also features the actress from the original Lights Out short, Lotta Losten. And Maria Bello handles the role of the mentally ill mother with a wise restraint that makes the character familiar and sympathetic.

In short, there's more going on here than in the average horror film. And all the jumps and spookiness you'd expect too, of course. I'd give Lights Out a B. Fans of tense scares will want to check it out.

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