Is there any fear more primal than that of the dark?
After all, what you can’t see can kill you, especially if the what is Diana, a twitchy, pinhole-eyed wraith with an attraction to the mentally ill.
Based on a genuinely creepy short that went viral back in 2013, Lights Out, the feature début of David F. Sandberg (AKA poneysmasher), takes the tried and tested trope of terrifying female specter — albeit one composed of darkness and not simply clothed in the usual J-Horror white — with a new and terrifying ability. No cursed tapes or haunted houses here. The rule is simple: stay out of the shadows.
Then again, darkness does seem to be inevitable, as one unfortunate small-business owner learns to his agony. As if a mannequin factory weren’t an inherently creepy enough space in broad daylight, it becomes immeasurably more when all that stands between you and evisceration — despite her shadowy composition Diana is very much a physical presence — are a few circles of light on perilously short timers. No sooner does the nearest one blink out than Diana materializes, already leaping for your throat.
In fact, light sources are notoriously unreliable in the film and Eric Heisserer’s script takes every opportunity to elicit tension from the desperate cranking of a windup torch or the fleeting safety offered by the flashing of a neon sign of a tattoo parlor.
The neon sign in question just so happens to hang outside the bedroom of Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). Her investigation into the creature that’s been lurking around the family home and seems to have further isolated her already disturbed mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), and be the cause of sleepless nights for her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman), puts Rebecca and well-meaning boyfriend Bret (Alexander DePersia) objects of Diana’s wrath.
While the prospect of any taloned creature carving their name into your nice hardwood floor is innately terrifying, Diana is far less original a creation than the white-eyed, Plasticine-skinned nightmare child of Sandberg’s original short.
Her back-story is cribbed straight from the Ringu playbook — evil kid meets tragic death — and her m.o. of simply carving up her victims is too blandly gruesome to carry much psychological weight. Also, if read as surface analogy for depression, as, say, It Follows was for sexual anxiety, then the film’s self-sacrificial climax is, at best, deeply ill-considered.
The scares are mostly there, but Lights Out forgets that real terror, the power to evoke genuine dread, lies with the unknown. A bit more darkness, a bit less explication, please.