Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #616
Number of Views: One
Release Date: July 22, 2016
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 81 minutes
Director: David F. Sandberg
Producers: James Wan, Lawrence Grey, Eric Heisserer
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer
Based on Lights Out by David F. Sandberg
Special Effects: Mark R. Byers
Visual Effects: Peter Crosman, Steffen Reichstadt
Cinematography: Marc Spicer
Score: Benjamin Wallfisch
Editing: Kirk Morri, Michel Aller
Studios: New Line Cinema, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Atomic Monster Productions, Grey Matter Productions
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Stars: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Maria Bello, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Ava Cantrell, Lotta Losten, Andi Osho
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Blue Stahli “Enemy”
 Benjamin Wallfisch “Lights Out”
I have decidedly mixed feelings about darkness. On one hand, the moment when you are plunged into a blackout scenario is an exhilarating one, and there are few better ways to get the blood circulating. For me, the problem arises once my eyes become acclimatized to their surroundings and I am suddenly presented with front row seats to any ghoulish nasties lurking in the shadows. Given that my imagination overacts on its default setting, it loves to play tricks on me during these moments and, only last night, I made the rudimentary mistake of leaving my closet door ajar and expecting to claim so much as a solitary wink of sleep. After around twenty minutes of imagining all manner of home invading hell wretches peering through the blanket of ink this provided, I eventually plucked up the courage to seal this fissure shut and instantly felt the burden lift from my weary shoulders. Does that make me a wuss? Goody gum drops, as a self-confessed dread whore, I’d hate for my belly to be any shade other than yellow.
It would appear that many others share in my consternation as, when David F. Sandberg created the short film Lights Out to enter into a competition and uploaded it, the thing went viral before you could go check the fuse box. It’s premise couldn’t have been more bare bones, a woman spots a ghastly silhouette when she turns out the lights, but nothing whatsoever every time she flicks that switch. Regrettably it didn’t win the competition it was entered into although, in the history of silver linings, few clouds are as lustrous as the turn of events that followed. The response was staggering, with Sandberg unable to keep up with the amount of interest from agents keen to develop this idea further. One of these just so happened to be none other than James Wan and I’d imagine it was around this time that the Swedish filmmaker (perhaps better known under the glorious alias “ponysmasher”) jizzed his denims.
First things first, Wan may well have been enthused by his basic concept, but he was hesitant as to whether it would convert well to a full-length feature and needed convincing before he pledged allegiance to the cause. Sandberg wasted no time in knocking up a treatment and, realizing the potential, Wan handed it straight to Eric Heisserer to thrash out a suitable screenplay. Along with his wife Lotta Losten, Sandberg promptly packed his bags and headed over to Hollywood, likely still pinching himself at this point over his outrageous fortune. What followed was an extraordinary leap of faith as the rookie (who had never before stepped foot on a film set) was then trusted to shoot the thing and an extensive marketing campaign did the rest. After enjoying its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2016, worldwide release beckoned, and it prospered to the tune of around $150 million in receipts. Sure as shit beats working in the IKEA warehouse.
Speaking of which, that is precisely where our story begins as Lights Out wastes no time whatsoever in pointing out the obvious. Our first patsy even manages to suss out the game being played on him before being torn asunder by the ominous apparition clinging to the pockets of darkness as though its afterlife depended on it. For those of us familiar with the short film that inspired this (almost 15 million YouTube hits at last tally), we’re ready to chink our champagne stems on a job well done, although I still harbored concerns over how this could possibly translate to an 81 minute excursion. This is where it pays to have Wan and his minions fighting your corner as he duly provides us with two rather monumental reasons to rest easy.
One is the almost impossibly hot rebel for the cause Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), and the other, her fruitcake mother Sophie (Maria Bello). Both are instrumental to our investment and Palmer, in particular, carries the weight of her tormented subject with unthinkable ease. Rebecca is street smart, as confident as any young lady who could encourage knee-trembles simply by reciting the line “what big eyes you have”, and has her lank-haired rocker boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) positively sniffing the flannel she washes with. Desperate to sneak a single sock into her bedroom drawer to claim dibs on this Gothic princess, he will do anything for her and she clearly gets a kick from the short leash she commands him from.
While seemingly unflappable, her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) has her right on edge as he is suffering from insomnia and she has a fair idea what’s causing these sleepless nights. You see, mommy dearest has a long history of documented mental illness and her bouts of doom and gloom are becoming increasingly frequent. This in itself has the warning bells chiming but, what really has Rebecca spooked, is the company her estranged mother keeps once the end of the evening draws near. Enter Diana, an imaginary friend from her childhood with some serious detachment issues and a grudge against Martin for sharing her limelight so to speak. Each time the lights dim, Diana makes his life a living hell, inhabiting every inky crawlspace she can scuttle into and threatening to snuff him out of the equation and earn herself some bragging rights.
We now begin to see another side to Rebecca as she is forced to accept the role of protective big sister and all those nightmarish memories from her childhood come flooding back in unison. Palmer is simply off-the-scale and the scenes between her and the ever-brilliant Bello lend real emotional heft to proceedings, allowing Heisserer to expand on the one-sheet mythology and make a telling statement about a sparring family under the duress of long-term mental instability. Meanwhile, DiPersia transforms what could have been a throwaway supporting role into something far greater and plays a significant part as we move into the final act. Bateman too is encouraged to act out of his young skin and, for one of such tender years, gives a massively creditable account of himself as our pre-pubescent pawn, showcasing a panic all too palpable for those of us who constructed fortresses from our bed linen as children.
Lights Out does everything else we would be expecting with typical swagger. Veteran cinematographer Marc Spicer manipulates the darkness to marvellous effect, while the exemplary sound design is every bit as critical to shattering our defenses and keeping us looking nervously into the blackened pockets of dread scattered around us. The result is a film that could so easy have been gimmicky in the wrong hands but one which has been nurtured thoughtfully from seed to screen and punches well beyond its meager weight. Any longer than 81 minutes and our generosity may have been stretched somewhat but, as a lean exercise in terror from a first-time director with a solitary idea and a bucketful of good fortune that he made himself, its light shines surprisingly brightly.
Sandberg has since been commissioned to direct Annabelle 2 and this poses an entirely different type of challenge as the original fell some way short of doing its folklore justice. I wish him well and await that project with far greater anticipation knowing his name is attached to it, which speaks volumes about a job very well done and the raw potential he possesses. With Wan as his mentor, a very bright future may well be on the cards, but before he starts clutching his junk like Larry Blackman, I’d like to remind him that I’m sending over my next quarterly electricity bill as my tariff has sky rocketed since Diana took up residency in my darkened recesses. Pesky primal fears.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Dread Factor: 4/5
For the Dread-Heads: Crafty would be the key word here as Lights Out does precisely what it states on the tin and often at a split second’s notice. Every time we are plunged into darkness, it’s game on, and the only conceivable downside is that, for all of its fleshing out, Sandberg’s film remains something of a one-trick pony. That said, it’s one helluva prank to play and, a few cheap jolts aside, it does so with gut-wrenching tension to spare.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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