David F. Sandberg’s “Lights Out” is a film about common fears and universal phobias; about things that go bump in the night, and exist only in the dark. Built on a clever premise, the film is executed seamlessly. It’s the best expression of a low-budget horror flick: resourceful and smart, where the most charismatic character is the ghoul itself. At a lightning quick 81 minutes, Sandberg creates a thoughtful and very scary world in “Lights Out,” a spooky tale about what happens when the demons in your head come out to play.
Teresa Palmer is Rebecca, a gorgeous, if quick-tempered, goth chick with commitment issues. The one person to whom she is devoted is her baby brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who has been left to contend with their mercurial mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) in the wake of his father’s (Billy Burke) violent death. This spare film cuts right to the chase to maximize prime scares: mom’s got a ghostly friend, Diana, from her days as a teen mental patient, and Diana is a very jealous, very possessive presence. Meddlers in the relationship are dealt with in painful, terrifying ways.
The hook here is that Diana, who during her short and troubled life suffered from a rare condition that made her hyper-sensitive to light, only appears in the dark. Using light as their weapon and protection, Rebecca and Martin try to fight the demon that terrorizes their mother and threatens their lives. Ultimately, the ghoul is inextricably linked to their mother, and the stranglehold it has on her consciousness is unrelenting.
Palmer’s performance drifts into stereotype at times, as she rolls her eyes like an impatient teen, but that characterization is a fault of the writing too (Eric Heisserer wrote the screenplay). We’re supposed to read her as edgy and damaged mostly due to the metal posters on the walls of her apartment, as well as her casual approach to her relationship with doofy rocker boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia). But what Palmer brings to the film are her large, luminous eyes, which Sandberg highlights with pin lights as a visual focal point within the frame, and glow with an otherworldly fire in the beam of a blacklight.
But the standout of “Lights Out” is the young, preternaturally talented Gabriel Bateman, as a boy wise beyond his years, at once terrified and protective of his own mother. His earnest bravery is heart-rending, and provides the necessary emotional component and stakes that are missing from the connection between Rebecca and Sophie. The always excellent Bello is viscerally unsettling as the tormented woman coming apart at the seams.
Horror auteur James Wan, who launched a horror resurgence in the mid 2000s with the low-budget “Saw,” and tells his own ghost stories with “The Conjuring” films, lends his stamp of approval to the film as a producer. “Lights Out” is the same brand of high-concept, high-scares, cinematography-driven horror of Wan’s best work, and it’s a connection that has proved fruitful for Sandberg, who is helming “Conjuring” spin-off “Annabelle 2.” Sandberg proves his knack for smart, stripped down, even soulful horror with “Lights Out,” a film that quite possibly could make you afraid of the dark, if you weren’t already.
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Gabriel Bateman, Billy Burke, Alexander DiPersia.
Director: David F. Sandberg.
Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 81 minutes. Violence, terror, brief drug content, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.