The gimmick of Lights Out — a C+ ghost picture that once or twice rises to the heights of a B- — is that the female demon can only manifest herself when it’s dark. This produces one good, shuddery effect, repeated throughout the film: Lights on and there’s nothing. Lights out and across the room you see the vague outline of a mottled, long-haired wraith. Lights on and again there’s nothing. Lights out and the creature is suddenly on top of the poor innocent who’s trying to keep the lights on.
Those lights go on and off a lot. Every bulb buzzes, every flashlight flickers, every flame wavers. From a speaker on the left comes insistent scratching, from the right an occasional creak. Whenever the angry ghost appears, there’s a fortissimo crash that would make you jump even without the scary visuals. I liked those crashes because they momentarily drowned out the group of tweenage girls in back of me who wouldn’t shut up. This is the sort of low-wattage horror movie at which everyone in the audience talks, texts, makes calls, occasionally hollers at the screen, and in general behaves as if they’re watching an unusually uneventful high-school basketball game.
Director David F. Sandberg based the film on his own video short, and I’m betting it was a fine one. Fifteen minutes of lights on/lights off could make you sick with fear, no narrative padding required. To turn this into a feature (albeit one that runs a bare 81 minutes), Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer needed to invent a personal drama. So the 20-something heroine, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), must be commitment-averse because, when she was 10, her father vanished, leaving her alone with her unstable mom, Sophie (Maria Bello). Now the stepfather who replaced her father is gone, too, although this time leaving behind his mangled body. Rebecca’s little half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) hears his mom having long, weepy conversations with someone in the shadows. That someone sounds very jealous of anyone who gets close to Sophie. Jealous enough to kiiiiilllllllarggghhh.
That’s a fair approximation of the voice of the demon. The actress who does it would have been laughed out of an Exorcist audition. Rebecca hears that voice, puts one and one together (two and two is the higher math), and lets her mom have it: “There is a dead woman in this house, Mom, and you let her stay!”
Bello is an excellent actress and makes Sophie’s anguish credible, although she can’t rise above the material. Palmer, an Aussie who looks like a cross between Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively, does about as well as can be expected. I’d love to hear her real voice: Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, and South Africans all tend to adopt the same anonymous, from-nowhere American accent. It takes away one of their best tools for building a character.
Lights Out is not sadistic, gratuitous, or especially reactionary as pro-nuclear-family horror pictures go, and the body count is so low you could almost call the movie wholesome. (I was relieved when a couple of cops showed up because the chances of the main characters surviving shot way up.) Little kids might like it: It’s a starter shocker. No one else will need to sleep with the lights on.