Like Mama, this is the feature-length expansion of a scary short film – and has to work hard on a rationale to shore up its simple, creepy notion of a long-nailed, fright-haired menace who manifests in shadows but turns invisible and intangible in the light. Director David F. Sandberg and screenwriter Eric Heisserer come up with a backstory and a character for Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), their clinging, predatory, spiteful malicious menace. As with a run of recent horrors as varied as Mama, It Follows, Annabelle and The Babadook, there’s a sense of filmmakers casting around to come up with new, possibly franchisable fiends – which is at least a refreshing trend after a couple of decades of retreads. It may be that Diana only has 81 minutes of variations-on-a-theme scares in her, but for the moment that’s all Lights Out has to deliver.
In a self-contained prologue, an earnest guy (Billy Burke) is menaced in what seems to be a warehouse for scary shop-window dummies (a bit reminiscent of the play Ghost Stories) and we get a sketch of Diana’s capabilities as the lights go out and he gets got. Then, in some deft set-up, heroine Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is established as commitment-phobic when she won’t let her nice guy boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) stay over at her apartment and bears a few scars (literal scarifications) from a bad childhood experience. After her father left, never to be heard from again (uh oh), her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) was pestered by the jealous spirit of Diana, who took to persecuting Rebecca. Now, with the guy from the prologue (Sophie’s second husband) offed, the haunting has started up again and young Martin (Gabriel Bateman) finds he’s sharing his old dark house with an increasingly flaky parent and a peculiarly malign, scratchy monster. Rebecca has to step up and return to the family home – dragging the bewildered, but refreshingly easy-to-convince Bret along – to delve into boxes full of backstory (an asylum, a peculiar disease, psychic connection, etc) and confront the troublesome spook/mutant.
The story spine is strong enough, and performances are on the nose (with Bello as the most complicated character), but Sandberg essentially comes up with a string of situations in which lights (light-bulbs, wind-up torches, candles, phone-screens) fail and Diana can reach out to grasp suddenly vulnerable victims. Some of this is obvious (tampering with fuse-boxes) but some is genuinely clever – like the way Diana can’t be shot because a gun’s muzzle-flash renders her incorporeal just as a bullet is hitting her – and there’s a neat last-act bit with a blacklight that doesn’t make her go away and means we get a flash glimpse of her zombie-rotted face (less effective than her ratty slinky silhouette, as it happens). It springs its jumps at regular intervals, a horror movie stratagem that’s easy to get snooty about but is really no less valid than a would-be Oscar-winning performance featuring regular breakdown-and-cry moments or a comedy having pratfalls and laugh lines. There’s a trace of eerie melancholy in the lightly-delineated longterm relationship between Diana and her co-opted best friend, but this stays away from the sort of deeper business found in, say, The Babadook. But it’s a lot fresher than, say, the flagging Insidious cycle (James Wan is aboard as producer here) or other franchise wannabes like Ouija and Annabelle.