Lights Out conforms to the now established tenets of PG-13 horror film making: ensure that your lead characters are of audience-identifiable age, and give the adults no more than a third of screen time; explain everything to the viewer - they can't have too much information; make sure the scares are largely detached from any violence; avoid swearing where possible, and no sexual swear words; and go for a redemptive ending, as although you want to make sure your audience go on a journey, they need to feel good about themselves afterwards.
Added to to the pressures of these constraints, Swedish director David F. Sandberg has an extra problem; how do you extend to feature length your extremely effective short film of the same name, which pretty much delivered all of the scares of your full length movie in just under three minutes?
Faced with the above it's amazing that Sandberg has been able to offer up anything worth your time, but for the most part Lights Out is a competently made, well-acted, if totally formulaic and unadventurous fright flick.
Young Martin lives with his mother Sophie, and is witness to her increasingly erratic behaviour - she's often found talking to a presence who Martin can't see. His step sister Rebecca takes Martin away from the family home for his own good; Rebecca has experienced the same maternal behaviour when she was a little girl, and doesn't want Martin exposed to it. Rebecca and her boyfriend Bret discover that there is a dark malevolent presence hanging around Sophie, called Diana. Sophie and Diana have a shared history within a mental institution going back to when they were both teenagers, although the records show that Diana died within the facility. So who's talking to Sophie now and what does Diana want with the family?
For those not in the know (both of you) the movie's title refers to the fact that Diana can only be seen in darkness. Once the lights are on, she vanishes. This angle is established right from the first scene, where Rebecca and Martin's father is despatched by the creature in an effective pre-credits sequence. After this, the 'kids' in the movie catch on pretty quick to the best way to keep the demon at bay, and there is, as you can imagine, a lot of fun to be had with failing flashlights and empty basements.
While the 'now-you-see-her-now-you-don't' jump scares become very predictable very quickly, the editing is tight and there's a great sound design which emphasises Diana's scratchy movements effectively. This is, however, all very reminiscent of The Babadook (2014) and Sandberg also borrows heavily from Ringu (1998) and its sequel. But the film has the depth of neither of these films (by choice probably) - the mood isn't helped by some very strained dialogue.
There's also a lot of soap-style back story in Lights Out, fulfilling one of the key PG-13 tenets - tell the audience everything. The problem with the approach of leaving nothing unexplained in a fright flick is that, the more you explain the more unexplained and frankly illogical detail is exposed to the audience. This is perhaps most problematic in the history of Sophie and her dark companion; this part of the story is told through the unravelling of facts by Rebecca, leaving the mother's pivotal role in events diminished and pushed to the background. This may have been done to help the audience identify more with the younger cast member, but leaves many other facts about the relationship between Sophie and the thing of the dark up in the air.
Perhaps the most unsettling thing in the film is the treatment of mental illness. bearing in mind the movie's target audience and a lot of work currently being done to highlight issues of depression among young people. The plot of Lights Out makes Sophie's condition frightening simply for dramatic effect, and her final solution for dealing with Diana, which I won't spoil, left a nasty taste in my mouth, if not her children's.
But maybe I'm being oversensitive. After all, I'm clearly not the right target audience for this film. The guy sitting to my left at the screening I attended clearly was - he spent most of the movie with his fingers in front of his eyes, shouting "Don't go in there!" every time they got near a half open door. Ah, youth.