The premise of Lights Out is intriguing: a dysfunctional family torn apart by the mother’s psychological issues, which take on a life of their own – or are taken over.
The problem is that before we’re a third of the way through the film, it breaks its own rules.
Sophie (Maria Bello) and her son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) live in a lovely suburban home – where she keeps the lights off as much as possible. You see, she has this friend, Diana, who is very sensitive to light. Diana is a strange beast – she can only move around in the dark – early scenes show her making progress toward a target as the lights go on and off.
And Diana wants Sophie all to herself – we see her as she attacks Sophie’s second husband (Billy Burke).
While Sophie talks with Diana all the time, Diana scares the crap out of Martin who can’t sleep because he has to keep his bedroom light on or she’ll hurt him – a similar situation forced his sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) to move out.
When Martin falls asleep in homeroom for the third time in a week, Rebecca takes him to her apartment – which baffles her more or less boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia) because in eight months he’s been unable to get to let him stay overnight.
There are peripheral subplots (Martin can’t stay with Rebecca because Child Protective Services don’t know about Diana – and how do you explain that anyway…?) but the essence of the story is that Diana goes away when Sophie takes her meds and Sophie isn’t willing to do that, thus putting her children in danger.
The idea of a dysfunctional family being the center of a horror film is fresh – usually a happy family moves into a house that carries its own baggage – and the performances of the principals make us believe that this a family that has been torn apart and would really like not to be.
Maria Bello is especially good as Sophie, who really wants her family around her but isn’t willing to part ways with her ‘friend.’
There are plenty of good things about Lights Out – the fresh take on the haunted family; the effects that Sophie’s issues have had on the family (her first husband left; Rebecca moved out); a genuinely nice guy boyfriend who doesn’t flee at the first sign of spookiness; the effects; the score; the performances…
The problem is that once you establish the rule that light can hurt or even kill Diana, you just can’t have her moving around in a lighted area. And that happens – though a lot of the audience probably won’t get that.
So, despite all its positives, Lights Out just doesn’t quite make it. (Plus, Diana reminded me of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who – and the episodes in which they appeared were much scarier than this movie).
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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures